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Ella Josephine Baker
Ella Josephine Baker (December 13, 1903 – December 13, 1986) was an African-American civil rights and human rights activist. She was a largely behind-the-scenes organizer whose career spanned over five decades. She worked alongside some of the most famous civil rights leaders of the 20th century, including W. E. B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, A. Philip Randolph, and Martin Luther King, Jr. She also mentored many emerging activists such as Diane Nash, Stokely Carmichael, Rosa Parks, and Bob Moses. She was a critic of professionalized, charismatic leadership and a promoter of grassroots organizing and radical democracy. She has been called "One of the most important African American leaders of the twentieth century and perhaps the most influential woman in the civil rights movement.
Ella Jo Baker was born in Norfolk, Virginia, and raised by Georgiana and Blake Baker, her parents. When she was seven, her family moved to her mother's hometown of Littleton in rural North Carolina. As a girl, Baker listened to her grandmother tell stories about slave revolts. Baker's maternal grandmother Josephine Elizabeth "Bet" Ross,:1907 had been enslaved and was whipped for refusing to marry a man chosen for her by the slave master.:1906
Baker attended Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, graduating as class valedictorian in 1927 at the age of 24. As a student she challenged school policies that she thought were unfair. After graduating, she moved to New York City. During 1929-1930 she was an editorial staff member of the American West Indian News, going on to take the position of editorial assistant at the Negro National News. In 1930 George Schuyler, then a black journalist and anarchist (and later an arch-conservative), founded the Young Negroes' Cooperative League (YNCL), which sought to develop black economic power through collective planning. Having befriended Schuyler, Baker joined in 1931 and soon became the group's national director.
She also worked for the Worker's Education Project of the Works Progress Administration, where she taught courses in consumer education, labour history and African history. Baker immersed herself in the cultural and political milieu of Harlem in the 1930s. She protested Italy's invasion of Ethiopia and supported the campaign to free the Scottsboro defendants in Alabama, a group of young black men accused of raping two white women. She also founded the Negro History Club at the Harlem Library and regularly attended lectures and meetings at the YWCA. During this time, she lived with and married her college sweetheart, T. J. (Bob) Roberts; interestingly, most people did not know she had ever married. Their respective work schedules kept them often apart, and they finally divorced in 1958. Her life in Harlem was very exciting, and she befriended the future scholar and activist John Henrik Clarke and the future writer and civil rights lawyer Pauli Murray, and many others who would become lifelong friends. The Harlem Renaissance influenced Baker in her thoughts and teachings. She advocated for widespread, local action as a means of change. Her emphasis on a grass roots approach to the struggle for equal rights influenced the success of the modern Civil Rights Movement.
In the 1960s, the idea of "Participatory Democracy" was created. It was a new formulation, bringing to the traditional appeal of democracy an innovative tie to broader participation. There were three primary emphases to this new movement:
• An appeal for grass roots involvement of people throughout society, while making their own decisions
• The minimization of (bureaucratic) hierarchy and the associated emphasis on expertise and professionalism as a basis for leadership
• A call for direct action as an answer to fear, isolation, and intellectual detachment
Ella Baker stated:
You didn't see me on television, you didn't see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don't need strong leaders.
Baker's statement advocates a more collectivist model of leadership over the "prevailing messianic style of the period". In essence, what Baker was largely arguing against was the Civil Rights Movement mirroring the organization model of the Black church. The Black church, at the time, had largely female membership and male leadership. Baker questioned not only the gendered hierarchy of the Civil Rights Movement, but also that of the Black church.
In 1938 she began her long association with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Baker was hired in December 1940 as a secretary. She traveled widely, especially in the South, recruiting members, raising money, and organizing local. She was named director of branches in 1943, making her the highest ranking woman in the organization. She was an outspoken woman with a strong belief in egalitarian ideals. She pushed the organization to decentralize its leadership structure and to aid its membership in more activist campaigns on the local level. Baker believed that the strength of an organization grew from the bottom up and not the top down. She believed that the work of the branches was the life blood of the NAACP. Baker despised elitism and placed her confidence in many rather than the few elitists. She recognized that the bedrock of any social change organization is not the eloquence or credentials of its top leaders, but rather, it lies in the commitment and hard work of the rank and file membership and willingness and ability of those members to engage in a process of discussion, debate, and decision making. She especially stressed the importance of young people and women in the organization.
While traveling throughout the South on behalf of the NAACP, Baker met hundreds of black people and solidified and establish lasting, enduring relationships with them. She slept in their homes, ate at their tables, spoke in their churches, and earned their trust. She wrote thank-you notes and expressed her gratitude to the people she met. This personalized approach to political work was one important aspect of Baker’s effort to recruit more members, men and women, into the NAACP. Baker formed a network of people in the south who would go on to be important for the fight for civil rights. Whereas some organizers tended to talk down to rural southerners, Baker’s ability to treat everyone with respect helped her in her recruiting. Baker fought to make the NAACP more democratic and in tune with the needs of the people. She tried to find a balance between voicing her concerns and maintaining a unified front.