From Sat Sep 9 13:48:05 2000
Date: Sat, 9 Sep 2000 04:36:29 -0400
From: Art McGee <>
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] Activists of the Century: Ella Baker
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Ella Baker

By Lisa Y. Sullivan <>, Social Policy, Vol.30 no.2, Winter 1999

I am honored that Social Policy invited me to share with its readers an essay on the person in this century who inspires me most. As a beneficiary of the modern civil rights movement, I think frequently about the shoulders upon which I stand. Moreover, as a student of the African-American struggle for freedom, justice, and equality, I am well aware of the pantheon of great women and men who have contributed significantly to the progress of my people and the advance- ment of this nation. Most importantly, it is my unwavering faith in the power of ordinary people to create and sustain the sea change necessary for 21st century social justice that inspires my commitment to community organizing and social activism.

Although deeply influenced by a wide range of social reformers, radical thinkers, and political activists, admittedly at my core it has been the example of African- American women—both prominent and obscure—that has shaped the kind of work that I have taken up as my profession. It is the defiant and freedom-bound spirit of Black domestics like my paternal grandmother and the countless educators like my maternal grandmother and mother that inspire my post-civil rights activism. And as I look toward the future, it is a new generation of young women activists, organizers, and youth workers—themselves products of late 20th century urban decay and abandonment - that give me the most hope and inspiration for the reconstitution of a post-modern social movement in America. Upon reflection, it only took a minute for me to focus on the Black woman worthy of discussion in this essay. Her name is Ella Josephine Baker.

Bridge Building beyond Ideology

Ella Baker’s example has profoundly shaped my leadership, my life, and my work. I remember vividly when I first discovered Miss Baker in 1981 as a 20-year-old college student. I was home for the summer between my sophomore and junior year at Clark College in Atlanta. Growing up in the nation’s capital, I had discovered early in life the power of reading books. The DC public library fed my insatiable appetite for social justice and social change. Throughout the mid- to late-70s, the Black studies division of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Public Library, at 9th and G Street, served as my central movement headquarters in high school. (During this time, the other outposts were the Takoma Park branch library and Howard University’s Founders Library.) During the college academic year, Trevor Arnett and Woodruff libraries on the campus of the Atlanta University Center provided ample substitution.

One typical summer evening when I was just hanging out at movement central, I noticed a flyer announcing the screening of a new film by civil-rights activist Joanne Grant. Taking note that the screening would take place that evening in 15 minutes, I raced to the appropriate room to check out Fundi: The Ella Baker Story. When the film ended, I knew something significant in me had been touched, and I had been forever changed. I sat after the film and listened to Judy Richardson and other former members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) talk about Miss Baker. The youngest person in the viewing audience that evening, I quietly slipped out of the room when the program ended with a very clear vision of what it meant to be in the freedom struggle for life. That night, I became a student of Ella Baker.

Ella Baker’s five decades of work as a community organizer speak to me in loud, deep tones. A pivotal, behind-the-scenes figure in progressive African-American politics until her death in 1986, she was involved with nearly 50 organizations, coalitions, or support networks over the course of her life, leaving an indelible mark on 20th century Black politics.

I am equally influenced by her example of compassion for social justice and the necessity for intellectual curiosity. Ella Baker was an out-of-the-box thinker. She was not afraid of ideas nor did she allow ideology to narrowly define her political allegiances. A radical, progressive thinker, Miss Baker recognized the importance of transcending political ideology to relate to the human being underneath the political verbiage. She did not deal in labels, which is the reason why she stayed politically relevant for her entire career as an activist and organizer. This point, more than anything else, explains why at a memorial service in Harlem following her death so many disparate elements of the movement—women and men, African-Americans, Latinos, Whites, feminists, Muslims, liberals, Christians, socialists, pacifists, gays and lesbians, Jews, revolutionaries, and ordinary folks—could come together to honor her life and invoke her spirit.

Miss Baker’s other important impact on my thinking and my work focuses squarely on the question of the principles of grassroots democracy and decentralized leadership. It was essential for Ella Baker that localized organizational structures offer women, poor people, and youth—the three forces that see-saw as the backbone of the movement—an important entry point into movement leadership circles. For Ella Baker, the single most important goal of community organizing was to ensure the leadership development of poor people, women, and youth to participate in and contribute to local political activism by initiating projects and influencing strategy.

Youth Organizing: An Honorable Profession

Throughout her activist career, Ella Baker was first and foremost a youth organizer. After arriving in Harlem in 1927, she helped to found her first youth organization in 1930. The Young Negroes’ Cooperative League (YNCL) membership consisted of Black youth, 18-35, committed to consumer education and small-scale cooperative ventures like buying clubs, grocery stores, and bulk distribution networks.

Elected national director by her peers, Baker pursued economic power through cooperative ventures as an alternative to cut-throat capitalism. She believed that cooperatives emphasized the values of interdependency, group decision making, and the sharing of economic resources. Most of all, Baker sought to increase the social, political, and economic understanding of Black youth in the 1930s. By using an informational approach to Black youth rather than dogma, she aimed to educate and then lead her peers into self- directed action. I think it is so telling that the current generation of youth organizers has rediscovered consumer education, financial literacy, credit unions, and cooperatives as viable strategies for confronting persistent urban poverty, mass consumption and mass marketing, and the obscene inequities of globalization.

Throughout the 1930s, Ella Baker engaged in local youth organizing, primarily in Harlem. She chaired the Youth Committee of One Hundred, worked with the Young People’s Community Forum, and served as an adviser to the New York NAACP Youth Council. In 1938, Baker applied for the national NAACP position of youth director. She did not get the position, but two years later the outgoing acting youth director asked her to apply again.

Despite her impressive roster of recommendations that included A. Philip Randolph and the Urban League’s Lester Granger, Baker was once again denied the national directorship of the NAACP Youth Councils. In 1941, she joined the staff of the NAACP as assistant field secretary. She would later become director of branches, establishing a vast network of grassroots contacts in African-American communities throughout the South. It was this network of relationships built in the 1940s that formed the foundation for much of the civil-rights activity of the 1950s and 1960s. Although in charge of the development of adult chapters, Baker encouraged and kept in touch with the developments in the youth councils.

I think it is particularly noteworthy that the NAACP never trusted or allowed Ella Baker to fully developed the potential of the Youth Councils in the 1940s. It is important to note that the same fear of independent, organized Black youth still exists among the established civil-rights organizations. Despite the NAACP’s attempt to prevent Baker from formally organizing Black youth, her web of contacts in the South would prove an indispensable resource when she returned to youth work in 1960 with the birth of SNCC.

Bless Be the Ties that Bind

Ella Baker was, above all, the connecting social capital that brought young people together with their freedom- fighting elders, northerners with southerners, fundraising with community organizing, leadership training with ordinary people, and intellectuals with common folk. She spun a web of organizational and personal relationships that created the necessary and sufficient conditions for the founding of an independent youth organization that represented a true alternative to the more politically moderate and hierarchical civil-rights organizations of her time.

Not since her death has a leader emerged in the modern 20th century Freedom Movement committed to strengthening the ties that bind (relationships) social and political action. Fragmented and disorganized communities, constituencies, and institutions simply are not capable of producing the necessary and sufficient conditions for social change. Ella Baker tilled the soil for at least two decades in preparation for 1960s student movement.

In the final analysis it took a patient servant-leader imbued with humility and faith to quietly serve the movement in obscurity and without recognition. Regretfully, my generation of youth activists never found its Ella Baker. Instead, we experienced the leadership of some of her proteges. And when all was said and done, it seemed that they did not understand, remember, or honor the important role and function Miss Baker played in their own leadership development.

Into the 21st century, my work as an activist and organizer will focus on how to institutionalize the role Ella Baker played for local youth leaders from the 1930s through the 1960s. There is no doubt in my mind that such an organization is precisely what is needed to engage and unleash the leadership potential of poor urban youth. I am certain that the undeveloped social capital and untapped leadership potential of the hip-hop nation can re-energize the post-modern freedom movement. The good news is that the legacy and values of Ella Josephine Baker are alive and well among some of us in the post-civil-rights generation.