Ella Josephine Baker was born in Virginia, and at the age of seven Ella Baker moved with her family to Littleton, South Carolina, where they settled on her grandparent’s farmland her grandparents had worked as slaves. Ella Baker’s early life was steeped in Southern black culture. Her most vivid childhood memories were of the strong traditions of self-help, mutual cooperation, and sharing of economic resources that encompassed her entire community. Because there was no local secondary school, in 1918, when Ella was fifteen years old, her parents sent her to Shaw boarding school in Raleigh, the high school academy of Shaw University. Ella excelled academically at Shaw, graduating as valedictorian of her college class from Shaw University in Raleigh in 1927.
After her graduation from Shaw University, Baker migrated to New York City on the eve of the Great Depression, determined to find an outlet for her intellectual curiosity and growing compassion for social justice. She was deeply moved by the terrible conditions she witnessed on the streets of Harlem during the 1930s; scenes of poverty, hunger, and desperation.
The first political organization she joined after moving to Harlem was the Young Negroes Cooperative League (YNCL), founded by writer George Schuyler in December 1930. The expressed purpose of the group was to gain economic power through consumer cooperation. The YNCL was headquartered in New York City. In 1931 Baker was elected to serve as the group’s first national director. Another important experience that helped to shape Baker’s evolving political consciousness during the Depression was her employment with the Workers Education Project (WEP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a program designed to equip workers with basic literacy skills and to educate them about topics of concern to members of the work force. During the 1930s, Baker also began to grapple with the issue of women’s equality and her own identity as an African-American woman. She supported and worked with various women’s groups, such as the Women’s Day Workers and Industrial League, a union for domestic workers; the Harlem Housewives Cooperative; and the Harlem YWCA. Baker refused to be relegated to a separate “woman’s sphere,” either personally or politically. She often participated, without reservation, in meetings where she was the only woman present, and many of her closest political allies over the years were men. Similarly, in her personal life Baker refused to comply with prevailing social norms about women’s place or women’s behavior. When she married her longtime friend, T. J. Roberts, in the late 1930s, the marriage was anything but conventional, which typified her rebellious spirit. Baker never assumed her husband’s name, an unusual act of independence in those days. Also, even though she was married for over a decade, she never framed her identity as a woman around that of her husband and apparently never allowed domestic obligations to interfere with her principal passion, which was politics.
While in Harlem in the 1930s, Baker also worked as a reporter and editor for a variety of publications, including the West Indian News and the National News, a short-lived publication run by her close friend George Schuyler. In 1935 she coauthored an investigative article that exposed the plight of African-American domestic workers in New York during the Depression, which was published in the Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP. Among her political friends and associates in Harlem during this period were labor leader A. Philip Randolph, Lester Granger of the National Urban League, Communist Party lawyer Conrad Lynn, and George Schuyler.
The next important phase of Baker’s political career, which further solidified her evolving views of political struggle and social change, was the beginning of her involvement in the NAACP in 1940. Throughout her relationship with the NAACP, first as a field secretary and later as director of branches (1943-46), Baker remained on the staff of the NAACP until 1946, when, fed up with bureaucratic structure of the organization and its legalistic strategy for social change, she resigned as director of branches. Another factor that influenced her resignation was the added responsibilities she assumed when she took custody of her nine-year-old niece, Jackie. Baker continued to work with the NAACP in a volunteer capacity as the president of the New York branch, the first woman to hold that post. In that role Baker was a leader of school reform campaigns that sought the desegregation of New York City schools and greater parent involvement in school decision-making. She headed a coalition called Parents against Discrimination in Education. In January 1956, Baker and two of her closest political allies in New York, Stanley Levison and Bayard Rustin, founded the Northern-based organization In Friendship, to help raise funds for the growing Southern civil rights struggle. Baker served as executive secretary of the group, staffing its office, handling correspondence, and doing outreach to other organizations and individuals. A. Philip Randolph served briefly as nominal head of the coalition, and the noted Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas was a prominent member of the group. In Friendship sponsored several major fund-raisers to aid the Montgomery Improvement Association, which had coordinated the historic Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56. Upon the urging of her friends Rustin and Levison, both of them advisers to Martin Luther King Jr., in January 1958 Baker agreed to move to Atlanta to coordinate the Crusade for Citizenship, a voter rights campaign launched by the fledgling SCLC. In this new organizational context, Baker took up the fight she had waged within the NAACP some ten years earlier to decentralize decision making and to create accessible channels through which local grass-roots people could participate more fully. Although she respected King, SCLC’s president, she also felt that the increasing reliance on his public persona and charisma to mobilize people was dangerously channeling the movement’s energies in the wrong direction. Baker’s message was simply that “strong people don’t need strong leaders.” Baker eventually felt that as a woman, she never received the respect and recognition she deserved from the male ministers who ran the organization from the top down.
Consequently, when the student-led desegregation sit-in campaign erupted in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1, 1960, Baker who was ,already dissatisfied with the leadership of the SCLC, immediately shifted her attention to what would prove to be the cutting edge of the growing black freedom movement. Just as she had sought to extend the gains of the Montgomery boycott through her work with the SCLC, Baker once again strove to maximize the momentum of this new upsurge in mass direct action among African-American youth. After leaving the SCLC, Baker took a paid position in the regional student office of the YWCA in order to remain close to and assist with the growth of the embryonic student civil rights movement and to use the YWCA as a base of operation to generate resources and recruit student members for a new organization. During the early 1960s, Baker also worked briefly for white antiracist activists Carl and Anne Braden as a staff consultant to the Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF), an interracial group that worked for racial and social justice in the South. While working for SCEF, she traveled around the country speaking on the importance of linking the fight for civil liberties with the fight for civil rights and thereby helping to forge coalition efforts between white liberals and black civil rights organizers.
Baker’s influence on political movements of the 1960s extended beyond the bounds of the organizations with which she was directly affiliated. Former SNCC members and others who were inspired by her teachings went on to work in organizations ranging from the antiwar group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), to the Black Panther Party to mainstream electoral politics, and to the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, despite failing health, Baker continued to serve as an adviser to dozens of organizations, activists, and politicians throughout the country. Although Baker’s specific ideological imprint upon the civil rights organizations of the 1950s and 1960s is her most significant contribution to the African-American liberation struggle of the twentieth century, one overriding theme stands out in bold relief as we survey the long and rich history that characterizes her political life. Ella Baker was, above all, a bridge connecting young people to their elders, Northerners to Southerners, black people to white people, and intellectuals to common folk in a web of organizational and personal relationships. Moreover, she was a historical bridge connecting the social movements of the 1950s and 1960s to the legacy of black resistance and social protest in the decades that followed.