Barbara Ransby has written a thoughtful, analytical and very readable account about the uniquely important political life of American civil rights activist Ella Josephine Baker. The work is incredibly significant because Baker is one of those handful of people to whom very much is owed by very many. Beyond the documentation of a critical era in American history, the book is a seminal investigation of the history of the African-American freedom and civil rights movement in America. This is not to mention that Ransby has added immeasurably to the understanding of black women's history as well. In the age of the teleprompter and prepackaged news, original thinkers like Baker are a rarity and their stories need to be treasured like gold. She is proof that even little people can have an impact for good. Truly, her activism provides a template for anyone who wants to have an impact in society and to bring about social change peacefully.
Baker was a famous African-American civil and human rights activist whose career began in the depths of the depression of the 1930s. She did not seek prominence, but rather preferred to work behind the scenes as an activist in a career spanning over five decades of American history. This humble woman worked alongside the most famous civil rights leaders of the twentieth century including W.E.B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King Jr. Among the young people in the movement that received her tutelage were such rising civil rights heroes as Stokely Carmichael and Rosa Parks.
Baker was born in Norfolk, Virginia but moved when she was nine to her mother's hometown of rural Littleton, North Carolina. As a little girl, Ella listened to her grandmother tell her tales regarding the slave revolts. This tutelage by a former slave gave her a connection with the past sufferings of the black people and helped her to understand the stakes of the struggle that she was to engage in as an adult.
Baker went to Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina where she graduated as the class valedictorian in 1927. Even as a student, she questioned and challenged school policies that she felt were unjust. Upon graduation, she emigrated to New York City where during 1929 to 1930 she served as an editorial staff member of the American West Indian News. From there, she went on to take up the position of editorial assistant to the Negro National News. Baker joined the Young Negroes' Cooperative League (YNCL) in 1931 and soon was appointed the group's national director by her friend, organizational founder, black journalist and anarchist, George Schuyler who created the YNCL in 1930.
Later, she worked for the Worker's Education Project of the Works Progress Administration, teaching courses in the fields of consumer education, African labor history and African history. In this era, Ella immersed herself in the cultural and political maelstrom of Harlem in the Great Depression. She became active in protesting Italy's invasion of Ethiopia. Additionally, she was in support of the campaign to free the Scottsboro case defendants in Alabama where a group of young black men were accused of raping two white women.
No project was too small for Baker. She founded a Negro History Club at the Harlem Library and was a regular attendee at YWCA lectures and meetings. In Harlem, she befriended a number of future activists such as John Henrik Clark and Pauli Murray, as well as a number of others who became her lifelong friends and comrades in the civil rights struggle. The Harlem Renaissance had a great influence upon Baker and her teachings and thoughts. She was always an advocate for widespread, grass-roots protest as a means of permanent change in America. Her approach was to mingle with and become part of the lives of people and their struggles. This tactic became a staple of her leadership methods in the struggle of the modern civil rights movement.
Baker always believed that for democracy to work, it had to have a wide base. The meaning of the struggle was to bring about a new formulation of people in order to augment the traditional appeal of widespread democracy with a broader participation. Baker's approach was to advocate a much more collectivist model of leadership over the cults of personality of many other black and civil rights leaders.
Essentially, Baker was largely arguing for an eclectic organizational template for the civil rights movement that paralleled the organizational model of the black church in which there were both female and male leaders. She questioned not only the gender-based hierarchy of the civil rights movement, but also that of the black church when it veered from an egalitarian model.
In 1938 she proceeded down a new avenue when she became involved with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She was hired there as a secretary in December 1940. She traveled widely with the NAACP recruiting members as she raised money and organized local campaigns. She was named a director of branches in 1943. This made her the highest ranking woman in the organization. She was outspoken, with a strong belief in a set of egalitarian ideals and beliefs. She pushed this organization in order to decentralize its leadership structure as well as to aid its membership and have more activist campaigns on the local level. Baker especially stressed the importance of having young people and women participate in the organization.
She formed a network of activists in the south who would later become important in the fight for civil rights. While some tended to talk down to rural southerners, Baker's hospitality and ability to treat all with respect helped in her recruiting methods. She fought to make the NAACP much more democratic and more in tune with the needs of the common people. Ella tried to maintain a balance between voicing her concerns and in maintaining a unified front in the fight for civil rights.
Examples of this included volunteering with the New York branch of the NAACP to work on school desegregation and police brutality issues. She became its president in 1952. She then resigned this position in 1953 to run unsuccessfully for a New York City Council position on the Liberal Party docket.
In January 1957, Baker traveled to Atlanta to attend a conference for the development of a new regional organization that would build on the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Following a second conference in February of that year, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was created. The conference's first project was to found a Crusade for Citizenship (a voter registration campaign). Baker was hired as the first staffer for the new organization. Along with her friend and ally Bayard Rustin, she co-organized the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage which organized and carried thousands of activists to Washington D.C. Since she was not a man or a minister, she was not considered seriously for the post of executive director. However, she worked with the SCLC ministers who hired Reverend John Tilley for this task. Baker then worked closely with the southern civil rights activist members in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi where she was highly respected for her organizing abilities. She also helped initiate voter registration campaigns as well as identifying other local grievances. Following Tilley's resignation, she stayed in Atlanta for another two and a half years as the interim executive director of the SCLC until this post was taken up by activist Wyatt Tee Walker in April of 1960.
That same year, in regional desegregation sit-ins that were led by black college students, Baker personally persuaded the SCLC to invite southern university students to the Southwide Youth Leadership Conference at Shaw University. At this landmark meeting, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was formed. The SNCC became the most…