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.
Movements are responses born and fed by suffering, injustice, and inequality — the ill paths society inevitably and unfortunately stumbles down. In moments of great change, movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968), confront hypocrisy similar to how the human body confronts dangerous pathogens; through the drudgery of nonviolent civil disobedience, activists uprooted, challenged, and made the world aware of the poisonous “separate but equal” fallacy of segregation. We can argue that The Civil Rights Movement, just as any other large reform movement, did not happen in a vacuum, there was no singular event that fundamentally changed everything; there were series’ of events. However, sometimes certain events transcend our understanding of historic reality. Events that are so powerful, albeit often tragic, they awaken us. Consider the murder of Emmett Till. Surely, not the first negro murder during the dark days of Jim Crow, especially in old south Mississippi, but the murder of Emmett Till and the callousness and brutally of it and how this cruel event was confronted by the courage of a languishing mother, grieving for the loss of her son, who choose to have an open casket funeral so the entire world could see what “those men did” to her child seems to be the sole catalyst that sparked what would later be known as, the Civil Rights Movement.
Emmett Louis “Bobo” Till was born in Chicago on July 25, 1941, to Louis and Mamie Till. Emmett would never know his father. In 1944, Louis was drafted into the U.S. Army and deployed out to Europe as a private. Three years later, Mamie received a letter from the “Department of Defense informing her, without a full explanation, that Louis was killed in Italy due to willful misconduct.” Along with the letter included Louis’ signet ring with the initials L.T. engraved into it. In 1955, Mamie gave the ring to her son, Emmett, before his summer trip to visit family living in Money, Mississippi.
The year before Emmett’s southbound departure from the 63rd Street station in Chicago, America had gone through some rather big reforms. In May 17th, 1954, “The Supreme Court orders public schools desegregated in Brown v. Board of Education. The watershed case overturns the separate-but-equal doctrine, which dated back to the 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson.” Southern segregationists obviously oppose the new legislation and on July 11, 1954 in the sleepy rural town of Indianola, Mississippi, form the White Citizens Council, a supremacist organization that often used violent and intimidation tactics to keep segregation a reality in what is considered to be the cradle of confederacy.
On August 20th, 1955, Emmett Till arrives at the home of his uncle Moses Wright. Moses, a sharecropper, is able to secure his fourteen year old nephew a job picking cotton in the hot Mississippi sun. Four days later, after putting in a long day at his summer job, Emmett joins a group of teenagers at “Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market for refreshments.” Waiting to purchase some bubble gum, Emmett is the last in his group to check out. Among the teenagers who would later testify remember hearing young Emmett tell Carolyn Bryant (the wife of the store owner) “bye baby.” Some of Emmett’s friends were shocked to hear him “talk fresh” with a white woman, but none of them thought anything horrible would come of it.
During the early morning hours before dawn on August 28, Roy Bryant (Carolyn’s husband) and his half brother J. W. Milam, arrived at the home of Moses Wright and demand to see Emmett. Without consent, the two men shove the terrified teenage boy into the back of their car and take off. This will be the last time anyone sees Emmett alive. On August 31st, “Emmett Till’s [mutilated and naked] corpse is pulled from Mississippi’s Tallahatchie River. Moses Wright identifies the body from a ring with the initials L.T.” The next day, Mississippi Governor Hugh White orders local officials to “fully prosecute” Milam and Bryant for the murder of Emmett Till. On September 3rd, “Emmett Till’s body is taken to Chicago’s Roberts Temple Church of God for viewing and funeral services. Emmett’s mother [forcefully requests] to have an open casket funeral. Thousands of Chicagoans wait in line to [witness] Emmett’s brutally beaten body.” According to the later testimony of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, a few months after being acquitted for the murder of Emmett Till, the pair described how they “brutally beat [Emmett], taking him to the edge of the Tallahatchie River, shooting him in the head, fastening a large metal fan used for ginning cotton to his neck with barbed wire, and pushing the body into the river.”
Lynching’s and other brutal forms of cowardliness murder were unfortunately common during this period of history. Just before Emmett’s arrival at the door of his uncle’s home, two other men, Reverend George Lee and Lamar Smith were both murdered for their participation with the NAACP and local voter registration drives. However, one could argue that under the conditions in which southern blacks lived, the history of segregation being paved with countless corpses of maliciously murdered men and women who dared enough to whisper “Enough!,” the murder of Emmett Till seems to be the singular catalyst that spilled the already boiling pot of discontent. But the movement that was to take shape was not a reactionary violent movement as one might expect. It was a nonviolent movement carefully crafted by the ethos of agape love, a love for neighbor insomuch as to eradicate the poisonous tumor called Jim Crow and segregation that caused ill effects for both the black and white communities living in the United States.
Three months after the body of Emmett Till was pulled from the Tallahatchie River, the Montgomery bus boycott began.
“The Murder of Emmett Till: The Brutal Murder that Mobilized the Civil Rights Movement,” American Experience documentary from the Eyes on the Prize series, PBS. 2003.