Ella Jo Baker: “If you have strong people, you don’t need strong leaders.”
While some Civil Rights leaders tested the limits of oppression in the South themselves through direct action, some empowered others to test those same limits. Ella Jo Baker was a natural born leader who empowered others by developing ordinary people into becoming grassroots leaders, building upon their own potentials and sense of social justice. Baker encouraged young activists, like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), to listen and become inspired by the testimonies of those suffering under racial oppression in Mississippi and throughout the Deep South. Baker wanted these young turks to extract lessons that could be applied to future freedom struggles. Ella Jo Baker was an important leader in the Black Freedom Movement who tested the limits of oppression by getting to know everyday people and believing passionately, just as former SNCC activist Victoria Gray Adams did, that “everybody has something to say and something to offer.”
During an interview with historian Charles Payne, Lawrence Guyot, a SNCC activist in Mississippi and an organizing member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, recollected a moment during SNCC’s collective history when Black males were “surging forward” into leadership positions. Guyot remembered making the macho mistake of telling some of the women, some of which included Fannie Lou Hamer and Victoria Gray, to “step back a little bit and let the men move in now.” According to Payne and historian Barbara Ransby, Guyot had made a similar comment in the presence of Ella Baker in 1965 and “she calmly corrected him.” Baker told Guyot that “[He had] proven that there are some men who can do a very good job but you have to learn never, never make the mistake of substituting men in quantity for women of quality.” In a way, Baker’s rebuttal to Guyot exemplifies the kind of person she was. Ella Baker was an “insurgent intellectual,” albeit patient, woman who, as Ransby describes, “Fought militantly but democratically for a better world.” The sum of Ella Baker’s activist career spans from 1930 to 1980, fifty years of touching lives and contributing wisdom, playing a pivotal role in developing Black Freedom Movement organizations, such as: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), In Friendship, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), functioning, as Ransby describes, “an outsider within.” Of the organizations Baker had the most influence, empowering to test the limits of oppression, were those young militant students in SNCC.
On February 1, 1960, Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, David Richmond and Ezell Blair, four black college students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, sat down at a “whites only” lunch counter at the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, and “refused to move.” After several days and without serious incident, Woolworth submitted to desegregate the lunch counter. These four college students ignited a movement that rippled across the South and gave hope to some of the older activists, like Ella Baker, who saw potential in the vigor of the growing student sit-in movement, the potential for something more grandiose, maybe even perhaps, as historian Ransby describes, “a new type of leadership” within the Black Freedom Movement. According to Ransby, Baker took immediate action and brought the students together on Easter weekend, 1960, to discuss (she hoped) future militant action and developing an independent organization of young people. The Southwide Student Leadership Conference on Nonviolent Resistance to Segregation was a huge success. The gathering took place at Shaw University, Baker’s alma mater, attracting more than 200 student participants; even those who wanted to protect their own local autonomy were curious to hear what others had to say.
The celebrity of Martin Luther King Jr. attracted many of the 200 student participants when they heard the news he was going to be speaking at the event. However, we must avoid compartmentalizing the narrative of the Civil Rights Movement as a series of nonviolent protests led by charismatic ministers. Not all leaders are necessarily charismatic or popular. Consider historian Ransby’s interesting distinction between King and Baker and the students who would eventually formed SNCC. According to Ransby, despite most of the student activists having never heard of Ella Baker before the Shaw meeting, “It was [Baker], more than King, [who] became the decisive force in their collective political future.” It was Baker who nurtured the student movement. It was Baker who offered the sit-in leaders what would become their signature model of organizing. It was Baker, not King, who taught the students the meaning of self-determination rooted in organizing communities into testing the limits of oppression and to withstand violence at the hands of white supremacy, in places where the people had the hardest lives, places in Mississippi with the “greatest direst need,” places such as: Cleveland, McComb, Greenwood, and eventually Ruleville.
Ella Jo Baker was involved with many organizations and movements, including the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, but her involvement with SNCC had the most the impact. Victoria Adams remembers meeting Ella Baker and feeling as if “we had always known each other. She was never a stranger, somebody I had to get to know. She was a very little figure, with a very strong and imposing voice.” Even now, those who survive today remember Ella Baker as a master teacher who inspired the way they fought the Black Freedom Movement, because, just as Adams often said, “the [real] strength with the Civil Rights Movement was in the fact that there were so many local people involved, [doing] the day-to-day work. Local people made the difference.” Ella Baker taught activist like Adams to “get to know everyday people,” because everyone had something to offer and if you have strong people, you don’t need strong leaders.