One of the most important African American leaders of the twentieth century and perhaps the most influential woman in the civil rights movement, Ella Baker (1903-1986) was an activist whose remarkable career spanned fifty years and touched thousands of lives. A gifted grassroots organizer, Baker shunned the spotlight in favor of vital behind-the-scenes work that helped power the black freedom struggle. She was a national officer and key figure in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and a prime mover in the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Baker made a place for herself in predominantly male political circles that included W. E. B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, and Martin Luther King Jr., all the while maintaining relationships with a vibrant group of women, students, and activists both black and white.In this deeply researched biography, Barbara Ransby chronicles Baker's long and rich political career as an organizer, an intellectual, and a teacher, from her early experiences in depression-era Harlem to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Ransby shows Baker to be a complex figure whose radical, democratic worldview, commitment to empowering the black poor, and emphasis on group-centered, grassroots leadership set her apart from most of her political contemporaries. Beyond documenting an extraordinary life, the book paints a vivid picture of the African American fight for justice and its intersections with other progressive struggles worldwide across the twentieth century.One of the most important African American leaders of the twentieth century and perhaps the most influential woman in the civil rights movement, Ella Baker (1903-1986) was an activist whose remarkable career spanned fifty years and touched thousands of lives. In this deeply researched biography, Barbara Ransby chronicles Baker's long and rich political career as an organizer, an intellectual, and a teacher, from her early experiences in depression-era Harlem to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Ransby paints a vivid picture of the African American fight for justice and its intersections with other progressive struggles worldwide across the twentieth century.>
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Ella Baker and the Black Freedom MovementA Radical Democratic Vision
By Barbara Ransby
University of North Carolina PressCopyright © 2005 Barbara Ransby
All right reserved.
IntroductionIn order for us as poor and oppressed people to become a part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. This means that we are going to have to learn to think in radical terms. I use the term radical in its original meaning-getting down to and understanding the root cause. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system. -Ella Baker, 1969
Ella Baker spent her entire adult life trying to "change that system." Somewhere along the way she recognized that her goal was not a single "end" but rather an ongoing "means," that is, a process. Radical change for Ella Baker was about a persistent and protracted process of discourse, debate, consensus, reflection, and struggle. If larger and larger numbers of communities were engaged in such a process, she reasoned, day in and day out, year after year, the revolution would be well under way. Ella Baker understood that laws, structures, and institutions had to change in order to correct injustice and oppression, but part of the process had to involve oppressed people,ordinary people, infusing new meanings into the concept of democracy and finding their own individual and collective power to determine their lives and shape the direction of history. These were the radical terms that Ella Baker thought in and the radical ideas she fought for with her mind and her body. Just as the "end" for her was not a scripted utopia but another phase of struggle, the means of getting there was not scripted either. Baker's theory of social change and political organizing was inscribed in her practice. Her ideas were written in her work: a coherent body of lived text spanning nearly sixty years.
Biography is a profoundly personal genre of historical scholarship, and the humbling but empowering process of finding our own meanings in another person's life poses unique challenges. As biographers, we ask questions about lives that the subjects themselves may never have asked outright and certainly did not consciously answer. Answers are always elusive. We search for them by carefully reading and interpreting the fragmented messages left behind. Feminist biographers and scholar-activists like myself face particular challenges. It is imperative that we be ever cautious of the danger inherent in our work: imposing our contemporary dilemmas and expectations on a generation of women who spoke a different language, moved at a different rhythm, and juggled a different set of issues and dilemmas. The task of tailoring a life to fit a neat and cohesive narrative is a daunting one: an awkward and sometimes uncomfortable process of wading barefoot into the still and often murky waters of someone else's life, interrogating her choices, speculating about her motives, mapping her movements, and weighing her every word. No single descriptor ever seems adequate to capture the richly nuanced complexity of a life fully lived. Every term is inherently inadequate, each one loaded with someone else's meanings, someone else's baggage. How can a biographer frame a unique life, rendering it full-bodied, textured, even contradictory, yet still accessible for those who want to step inside and look around?
My journey into Ella Jo Baker's world has been a personal, political, and intellectual journey, often joyous and at times painful. It has taken me in and out of some twenty cities and to numerous libraries, archives, county courthouses, kitchen tables, front porches, and a few dusty attics. This long journey has been marked by periods of difficult separation followed by hopeful reunions. In the process I have revisited the faces, experiences, and southern roots of my own mother, father, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins: Mississippi sharecroppers, domestic and factory workers, honest, generous, hard-working, resilient black people. Most importantly, in the process I have developed an intense and unique relationship with my subject. I have chatted, argued, commiserated, and rejoiced with Ella Baker in an ongoing conversation between sisters, one living and one dead. In this book, I have tried to tell Ella Baker's story partly as she would have told it and partly the way I-a historian and an activist of a different time and place-felt it had to be told.
There are those who insist that biographical writing is compromised and tainted by an author's identification and closeness with her subject. This does not have to be the case. I do not apologize for my admiration for Ella Baker. She earned it. I admire her for the courageous and remarkable life she led and for the contributions she made without any promise of immediate reward. I admire her for the ways in which she redefined the meaning of radical and engaged intellectual work, of cross-class and interracial organizing, and of a democratic and humanistic way of being in the world, all the while trying to mold the world around her into something better.
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I first came upon Ella Baker's story through my search for political role models, not research subjects. As an anti-apartheid and antiracist student activist at Columbia University and the University of Michigan in the 1980s and as a black feminist organizer thereafter, I was drawn to the example of Ella Baker as a woman who fought militantly but democratically for a better world and who fought simultaneously for her own right to play more than a circumscribed role in that world. As an insurgent intellectual with a passion for justice and democracy, Ella Baker held an affinity for the most oppressed sectors of our society. So, my first connection to Ella Baker was a political one. This connection has enhanced rather than lessened my desire to be thorough, rigorous, and balanced in my treatment of her life and ideas. For me, there is more at stake in exploring Ella Baker's story than an interesting intellectual exercise or even the worthy act of writing a corrective history that adds a previously muted, black, female voice to the chorus of people from the past. To understand her weaknesses as well as her strengths, her failures as well as her triumphs, her confusion as well as her clarity is to pay her the greatest honor I can imagine. To tell her life truths with all their depth and richness is to affirm her humanity and all that she was able to accomplish, because of and at times in spite of who she was. There are vital political and historical lessons to be gleaned by looking back in time through the lens of Ella Baker's life.
Ella Josephine Baker's activist career spanned from 1930 to 1980, touched thousands of lives, and contributed to over three dozen organizations. She was an internationalist, but her cultural and political home was the African American community. So it is within the Black Freedom Movement in the United States-the collective efforts of African Americans to attain full human rights, from the nadir of segregation at the turn of the twentieth century through the peak of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and beyond-that I locate her story. For Baker, as for W. E. B. Du Bois, racism was the litmus test for American democracy and for international human rights. Both were convinced that racism had infected every major social problem of the twentieth century: colonialism and imperialism, war and fascism, the oppression of women, the politics of crime and punishment, and the exploitation of labor; both recognized that very little progress could be made without tackling the political cargo of race. Baker organized for democratic rights for over fifty years, from Harlem to Mississippi, in interracial coalitions and African American organizations, and (unlike Du Bois) she lived to see the day when ordinary black folks enjoyed some of the fruits of freedom. But she died knowing that the process of struggle and social transformation would continue.
Ella Baker played a pivotal role in the three most prominent black freedom organizations of her day: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC; pronounced "snick"). She worked alongside some of the most prominent black male leaders of the twentieth century: W. E. B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, George Schuyler, Walter White, A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr., and Stokely Carmichael. However, Baker had contentious relationships with all these men and the organizations they headed, with the exception of SNCC during its first six years. For much of her career she functioned as an "outsider within." She was close to the centers of power within the black community, but she was always a critical and conditional insider, a status informed by her gender, class loyalties, and political ideology. Baker criticized unchecked egos, objected to undemocratic structures, protested unilateral decision making, condemned elitism, and refused to nod in loyal deference to everything "the leader" had to say. These stances often put her on the outside of the inner circle.
While her most public political associations were with men, some of Ella Baker's most significant and sustaining relationships were with a group of women activists, some of them not very well-known, who were her friends and co-workers over many years. These women provided the sisterly support that allowed Baker to fight all of the battles she did, both inside and outside the Black Freedom Movement. Ella Baker was part of a powerful, yet invisible network of dynamic and influential African American women activists who sustained civil rights causes, and one another, across several generations. Her life intersected with such notable black women as Anna Arnold Hedgeman, Dorothy Height, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Pauli Murray, Mary McLeod Bethune, Septima Clark, and Fannie Lou Hamer. She was dear friends with NAACP legends Ruby Hurley and Lucille Black. As Diane Nash and Eleanor Holmes Norton suggest, women like Ella Baker were laying the foundation for contemporary black feminists even before the term was invented. This earlier generation of women lived the politics others have since written about, challenging treatment that belittled the seriousness of their contributions, resisting models of organizing that placed men and men's work at the center, and carving out public identities as leaders, strategists, and public intellectuals-identities that were generally reserved for men.
A creative and independent thinker and doer, Baker operated in a political world that was, in many ways, not fully ready for her. She inserted herself into leadership situations where others thought she simply did not belong. Her unique presence pioneered the way for fuller participation by other women in political organizations, and it reshaped the positions within the movement that they would occupy. At each stage she nudged the movement in a leftward, inclusive, and democratic direction, learning and modifying her own position as she went.
For Ella Baker, anchoring her activism within the black freedom struggle was not simply a matter of identity but rather a part of a political analysis that recognized the historical significance of racism as the cornerstone of an unjust social and economic order in the United States extending back to slavery. A movement for black freedom, defined broadly, she thought, would inevitably be a movement against economic exploitation and the oppressive conditions faced by other groups within American society as well. At least it had that potential. African Americans and, in a complex variety of ways, other peoples of color were excluded from basic access to the political process, marginalized socially, and super-exploited economically for the better part of the twentieth century. If this contradiction could not be confronted, Baker felt, there was no hope for American society as a whole. More precisely, she felt that to push and challenge political and economic leaders on this question would expose some of the society's fundamental flaws and serve as an impetus for transformative social change on multiple fronts.
An aging and irascible Virginia Durr, the legendary white civil rights activist from Montgomery, once confronted me at a conference to remind me that "Ella Baker didn't just belong to black people." She was right. Baker's work, influence, and political family extended well beyond the confines of the African American community and the struggle against racism. She had strong ties to the more democratic tendencies within the white left. She worked closely with the multiracial labor and cooperative movements, while at the same time championing struggles against colonialism and imperialism around the world.
Ella Baker was concerned with the plight of African Americans, but she was also passionately committed to a broader humanitarian struggle for a better world. Over the course of her life, she was involved in more than thirty major political campaigns and organizations, addressing such issues as the war in Vietnam, Puerto Rican independence, South African apartheid, political repression, prison conditions, poverty, unequal education, and sexism. Still, because of who she was-a daughter of the Jim Crow South and a granddaughter of slaves-and because of the political analysis she formulated early in her career, which was centered on antiracist politics, Baker's primary frame of reference was the African American experience and the struggle for black freedom.
Baker identified with and helped advance a political tradition that is radical, international, and democratic, with women at its center. She critiqued black separatism as a narrow, dead-end strategy, yet she did not hesitate to criticize the chauvinism and racism of white colleagues in multiracial coalitions all the while stressing the importance of black leadership. Her own political ideology and worldview was a result of the cross-fertilization of the vibrant black Baptist women's movement of the early twentieth century, the eclectic and international political culture of Depression-era Harlem, and the American tradition of democratic socialism-a variegated mix of northern and southern, religious and secular, American and global, left and liberal elements.
Ella Baker's life gives us a sense of the connections and continuities that link together a long tradition of African American resistance. Each intergenerational organization she joined, each story she told, each lesson she passed on was a part of the connective tissue that formed the body politic of the Black Freedom Movement in the United States from the 1930s into the 1980s. Following Baker's path back through the years, trying to look at national and world events from her vantage point, takes us to different sites of struggle, opens up different windows of conversation, and pushes us into different people's lives than if we were to have someone else as our guide.
Finally, Ella Baker was a skilled grassroots organizer and an "organic" intellectual-one who learned lessons from the street more than from the academy and who sought to understand the world in order to change it. Many other activists looked to her, especially during the last half of her life, for her strategic and analytical insights and guidance. Her radical, democratic, humanistic worldview, her confidence in the wisdom of the black poor, and her emphasis on the importance of group-centered, grassroots leadership set her apart from most of her political contemporaries. Her ideas and example influenced not only SNCC in the 1960s but also the leaders of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and embryonic women's movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Baker was a role model and mentor for an entire generation of activists who came of age politically in the 1960s. Within progressive circles, even those who did not know her knew of her.
Ella Baker was a movement teacher who exemplified a radical pedagogy, similar to that of Latin American educator and political organizer Paulo Freire. She sought to empower those she taught and regarded learning as reciprocal. Baker's message was that oppressed people, whatever their level of formal education, had the ability to understand and interpret the world around them, to see that world for what it was and to move to transform it. Her primary public constituency was the dispossessed. She viewed a democratic learning process and discourse as the cornerstone of a democratic movement.
Ella Baker's private life was as unconventional as her public one. For example, many of her political colleagues never knew that she had, at one time, been married. She deemphasized her married life, never took her husband's name, and traveled extensively over the course of her nearly twenty-year marriage. Throughout the marriage, her principal passion was politics; after her divorce, she was singularly devoted to her first love.
Excerpted from Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement by Barbara Ransby Copyright © 2005 by Barbara Ransby. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1. Now, Who Are Your People?: Norfolk, Virginia, and Littleton, North Carolina, 1903-1918
Chapter 2. A Reluctant Rebel and an Exceptional Student: Shaw Academy and Shaw University, 1918-1927
Chapter 3. Harlem during the 1930s: The Making of a Black Radical Activist and Intellectual
Chapter 4. Fighting Her Own Wars: The NAACP National Office, 1940-1947
Chapter 5. Cops, Schools, and Communism: Local Politics and Global Ideologies--New York City in the 1950s
Chapter 6. The Preacher and the Organizer: The Politics of Leadership in the Early Civil Rights Movement
Chapter 7. New Battlefields and New Allies: Shreveport, Birmingham, and the Southern Conference Education Fund
Chapter 8. Mentoring a New Generation of Activists: The Birth of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, 1960-1961
Chapter 9. The Empowerment of an Indigenous Southern Black Leadership, 1961-1964
Chapter 10. Mississippi Goddamn: Fighting for Freedom in the Belly of the Beast of Southern Racism Chapter 11. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the Radical Campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s Chapter 12. A Freirian Teacher, a Gramscian Intellectual, and a Radical Humanist: Ella Baker's Legacy Appendix. Ella Baker's Political Affiliations, 1927-1986
Notes Bibliography Index
Ella Baker and Myles Horton, ca. 1960
Ella Baker, Jackie Brockington, and Carolyn Brockington, 1985
Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Stokely Carmichael, and others, 1964
Ella Baker in Atlantic City, New Jersey, 1964
Ella Baker smiling, 1962
Ella Baker in her Harlem apartment, 1984
Ella Baker with NAACP colleagues, September 1945
Ella Baker, ca. 1942
Ella Baker in Jackson, Mississippi, 1964
Ella Baker in The Crisis magazine, 1931
Ella Baker with David Dellinger and Marilyn Clement, 1980
Ella Baker in Shreveport, Louisiana, 1959
Ella Baker at NAACP fair, 1950s Ella Baker at Angela Davis rally, 1972
Ella Baker singing at SCEF luncheon, 1970s Ella Baker with William Kunstler and Marilyn Clement, 1980
What People are Saying About This
An intriguing and nuanced biography. . . . Ransby's treatment of Baker's life is not so much intent upon installing her name on the civil rights marquee as it is concerned with distilling the principles that Baker advocated and conveying her approach to social change. . . . Ransby has done much to carry Baker's legacy from margin to center and to bring her historical image into focus.The Progressive
This is a truly remarkable biography of a truly remarkable intellectual activist. Ella Baker, a legend in the black freedom movement, has been brought to life through this powerfully written study by historian Barbara Ransby. Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement will become, like Clayborne Carson's In Struggle, a standard in our interpretation of the civil rights era. Ransby's balanced and insightful interpretation of this courageous black visionary provides a wonderful model of what biography at its best can be.Manning Marable, Columbia University
Barbara Ransby's long-awaited biography of Ella Baker was certainly worth waiting for! This powerful, unforgettable story of one of the black freedom struggle's most influential and inspirational activists is at once scholarly, analytical, and deeply moving, essential reading for all who are interested in the possibilities of democracy.John Dittmer, DePauw University
The strength of Ransby's work is in her detailed accounting of Baker's political life, accompanied by an analysis of Black struggle in the 20th century.The Crisis
The definitive biography of one of America's most important civil rights leaders in the twentieth century.Religious Studies Review
Ella Baker was an unsung hero and intellectual giant of the black freedom struggle of the twentieth century. Ransby's biography is a magnificent and timely reminder that Baker's visionary voice, eloquent democratic silences, and unflinching faith in the power of ordinary people are much needed guides for the twenty-first century as well.Lani Guinier, Harvard University
Ransby offers the grit and gleam of Baker's practical humanist vision of participatory democracy. . . . Ransby's is a remarkable biography worthy of her remarkable subject. Essential for all biography, civil rights, community organizing, feminism, and 20th century U.S. or black history collections.Library Journal
This book is worthy of its subject, giving us a rich and vivid portrait of the ultimate critical citizen, inviting us to ask ever more fundamental questions about democracy and about our own capacity for building it.Southern Cultures
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book was engaging from start to finish. After reading this book I became so familiar with many of the civil rights leaders. The book encouraged me to bring the struggle of my people to my 10 year son and open his mind to his history.