Thursday, January 24, 2008

Forgotten American Blogging: Ella Baker

Kevin Levin, the writer of the excellent blog Civil War Memory, wrote this on Martin Luther King Day:

Martin Luther King Day has become too fashionable. At its worst it reinforces a skewed memory of the Civil Rights Movement as beginning with his organization of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 and ending with his assassination in 1968. It also obscures the complexity of organization on the grassroots level and the fissures that existed within the movement that followed generational, geographic, and gender lines. King's words are no doubt stirring and his actions are a model of civic dissent, but we run the risk of reducing the struggle for civil rights and its importance to the broader narrative of freedom down to a few choice lines and poor generalizations.

I could not agree more. I have complained about this myself. Levin chose to remember Vernon Johns on that day, a man certainly worth a Forgotten American post. Check it out.

I am going to take this opportunity to discuss another forgotten member of the civil rights movement, Ella Baker.

Baker was born in Norfolk, Virginia on December 13, 1903. Her grandmother installed a sense of injustice in her, telling her stories about being whipped in slavery for refusing to marry a man her master had picked out for her. She attended Shaw University, where she began developing her activism. She graduated as valedictorian and moved to New York where she became a full-fledged activist, including joining the Young Negroes' Cooperative League in 1930, which was an early black power organization, working for black economic self-sufficiency. She taught courses on African and labor history, as well as consumer education while working for the Works Progress Administration during the New Deal. She worked to free the Scottsboro Boys, protested against fascism, and more generally engaged in the social and political ferment of the 1930s.

Baker started her work for the NAACP in 1940. Beginning in 1943, she served as director of various branches of the organization, which she continued until 1946. In 1952, she became president of the New York City branch of the NAACP where she worked on issues of police brutality and school desegregation. In 1957, she left the NAACP to work for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that had been founded by Martin Luther King, Jr. following the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott. While working for the SCLC she organized voter registration campaigns among other things.

But here's the thing--because she was a woman, her incredible organizing skills were almost completely ignored by the extremely sexist leadership of the civil rights organizations. They had almost no one more qualified than Baker, but they never utilized her talents to the extent she deserved. Baker was also a strong feminist and had involved herself in women's rights campaigns since very early in her activist career.

Baker knew this of course and chafed against King, Ralph Abernathy, and the other sexist leaders of the movement. She respected their work on civil rights of course; that's why she stuck it out. But she was constantly frustrated, both by the overt sexism and because she knew she should take a larger role in the movement.

Rather than wait for the SCLC to understand gender equality, Baker moved on her own. When the four North Carolina A&T students engaged in their sit-in at the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth's, she recognized the potential of student activism far faster than the men of the SCLC. One thing that is forgotten in traditional narratives of the civil rights movement is that by 1960, it had stagnated. The success in Montgomery brought international fame to King and he continued to speak out and work on the issues. But there was deep disagreement within the SCLC on where to go next. Some wanted more bus boycotts, others wanted to work within the courts to overturn segregation. Remember that the only event between 1955 and 1960 that ever gets talked about is the Little Rock desegregation case and King had very little to do with that.

It took students to get the civil rights movement back on track. Baker quit the SCLC after the sit-ins. She organized a conference of the new student activists spreading across the South at her alma mater, Shaw University. Out of that was born the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which served as the core student organization within the movement until the late 1960s. Baker was their mentor; an experienced veteran who understood the long history of organizing around civil rights, a woman who encouraged students' direct actions and both listened to their issues and provided guidance and leadership. Among the activities that SNCC coordinated was the Freedom Rides in 1961 and the Mississippi voter registration that led to Freedom Summer in 1964. Baker herself played a key role in organizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964 that traveled to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City to challenge the seating of the all-white delegation from Mississippi.

After 1964, Baker moved back to New York where much of her family lived. She took a bit more of a backseat on national campaigns after this, but remained active the rest of her life. She played an important role in the Free Angela Davis campaign, traveling the country speaking about the issue in 1972. She supported the independence movements of the developing world and particularly spoke out in favor of Puerto Rican independence and against South African apartheid.

Moreover, Baker got pretty annoyed as she saw the King-centered narrative of the civil rights movement developed. She notoriously said things like, "[the] movement made Martin, and not Martin the movement" and "There is also the danger in our culture that because a person is called upon to give public statements and is acclaimed by the establishment, such a person gets to the point of believing that he is the movement." Even during the movement's height, she told activists that they needed to take control of the movement and not rely on a leader with "heavy feet of clay." Baker reflected the feelings of many of the more direct-action oriented in the movement on these issues.

Baker continued the struggle until her death on December 13, 1986, her 83rd birthday. Both during her life and after her death, Baker's role has been consistently ignored by mainstream narratives of the civil rights movements. Among historians, Baker is mentioned but most of us tell fairly traditional stories about the movement with King in the middle. Even if we do focus on student radicalism, as I do when I teach the survey, Baker gets less attention than she should. It's far sexier to talk about the direct actions than the planning that went into those actions. Students are more interested in freedom riders being beaten by Alabama mobs than conferences in North Carolina. Yet none of this would have happened in the same way without the leadership of Ella Baker.

Baker believed strongly that collective power could counteract evil. In her own words:

“The major job was getting people to understand that they had something within their power that they could use, and it could only be used if they understood what was happening and how group action could counter violence…”

While she was talking about southern racism specifically, we can apply these words to fighting any sort of evil. Baker also fought against top-down political structures within activist communities, working to promote the participatory democracy that is so prevalent within social justice movements today. While occasionally I have found decentralized structures frustrating because it can lead to a lack of things getting done, consensus building also serves to empower people and get members to buy into organizations and the ideas they work around.

Where Baker is remembered is the activist community. I particularly want to point people to the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, which seems to work on African-American and urban issues in Oakland.

Unlike many of the people I write about in this series, Baker does have an excellent biography. Barbara Dansby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision, published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2003. Ted Glick has a wonderful remembrance of Baker at ZNet as well. There is also a 1981 documentary about Baker but it doesn't seem available.