A giant in the civil rights movement.
Ella Jo Baker was born December 13, 1903, in Norfolk, Virginia, the granddaughter of slaves, the “Ella Baker Center for Human Rights” reports. Baker grew up in North Carolina, learning of her grandmother’s life in slavery, and the institution’s injustice, using that as fuel to hone her purpose as a social justice warrior. She carried her grandmother’s pride with her throughout her life, eventually going to Shaw University in Raleigh, working against unjust school policies, and moving to New York City after graduation to get involved in social activist organizations.
Baker joined the Young Negroes Cooperative League in 1930, developing Black economic power through collective organizing. In 1940, she began working as a field secretary for the NAACP, eventually becoming director of several branches from 1943 to 1946. She fought against Jim Crow Laws in the Deep South, finally moving to Atlanta in 1957 to support Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), running a voter registration campaign called the Crusade for Citizenship.
Baker eventually left the SCLC, becoming a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) after organizing a meeting at Shaw University for student leaders of the Greensboro sit-ins in April of 1960. SNCC was responsible for expounding upon Mahatma Gandhi’s theory of nonviolent action and worked to organize the 1961 Freedom Rides and create the 1964 Freedom Summer, aimed at registering Black voters in Mississippi. Baker’s leadership and guidance made SNCC one of the preeminent organizations for human rights in the country. “This may only be a dream of mine, but I think it can be made real,” Baker once said.
Her work, her principles, and her legacy live on today through the “Ella Baker Center for Human Rights,” which focuses on “building the power of Black, brown, and poor people to create solutions for one of the biggest drivers of injustice today: mass incarceration.” Through their policy work, commitment to defunding policing in Alameda County, California, statistical reporting on the impact of mass incarceration on the community and economically, and restorative justice work, the Ella Baker Center keeps the civil rights legends’ name alive. It is this mantle that we all must take up.
Baker passed away on December 13, 1986, her 83rd birthday. May her work and legacy never be forgotten.
Rest in peace, Ella Baker.
Photo Courtesy of Danny Lyon/SNCC Digital