Ella Baker: Grassroots Civil Rights Organizer

Ella Baker with microphone
Wikimedia Commons

Ella Baker was a tireless fighter for the social equality of African-Americans.

Whether Baker was supporting local branches of the NAACP, working behind the scenes to establish the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) with Martin Luther King Jr., or mentoring college students through the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), she was always working to push the agenda of the Civil Rights Movement forward.

 One of her most famous quotes encapsulates the meaning of her work as a professional grassroots organizer, "This may only be a dream of mine, but I think it can be made real."

Early Life and Education

Born on December 13, 1903, in Norfolk, Va., Ella Jo Baker grew up listening to stories about her grandmother's experiences as a former slave. Baker's grandmother vividly described how slaves rebelled against their owners. These stories laid the foundation for Baker's desire to be a social activist.  

Baker attended Shaw University. While attending Shaw University, she began challenging policies established by the school administration. This was Baker's first taste of activism. She graduated in 1927 as valedictorian. 

Early Career in New York City

Following her college graduation, Baker moved to New York City. Baker joined the editorial staff of the American West Indian News and later the Negro National News.

Baker became a member of the Young Negroes' Cooperative League (YNCL). Writer George Schuyler established the YNCL. Baker would serve as the organization's national director, helping African-Americans build economic and political solidarity.

Throughout the 1930s, Baker worked for the Worker's Education Project, an agency under the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Baker taught classes concerning labor history, African history, and consumer education. She also dedicated her time to actively protesting against social injustices such as Italy's invasion of Ethiopia and the Scottsboro Boys case in Alabama.

Organizer of the Civil Rights Movement

In 1940, Baker began working with local chapters of the NAACP. For fifteen years Baker served as a field secretary and later as director of branches.

In 1955, Baker was influenced greatly by the Montgomery Bus Boycott and established In Friendship, an organization that raised funds to fight Jim Crow Laws. Two years later, Baker moved to Atlanta to help Martin Luther King Jr. organize the SCLC.Baker continued her focus on grassroots organizing by running Crusade for Citizenship, a voter registration campaign.

By 1960, Baker was assisting young African-American college students in their growth as activists. Inspired by students from North Carolina A & T who refused to get up from a Woolworth lunch counter, Baker returned to Shaw University in April of 1960. Once at Shaw, Baker helped students participate in the sit-ins. Out of Baker's mentorship, SNCC was established. Partnering with members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), SNCC helped organize the 1961 Freedom Rides.

By 1964, with the assistance of Baker, SNCC and CORE organized Freedom Summer to register African-Americans to vote in Mississippi and also, to expose the racism existing in the state.

Baker also helped establish the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). MFDP was a mixed raced organization that gave people not represented in the Mississippi Democratic Party an opportunity to have their voices heard. Although the MFDP was never given a chance to sit at the Democratic Convention, the work of this organization helped to revise a rule allowing women and people of color to sit as delegates at the Democratic Convention.

Retirement and Death

Up until her death in 1986, Baker remained an activist--fighting for social and political justice not only in the United States but the world.