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HEROES OF the
Civil rights movement

Ella Baker

A lesser-known but immensely significant figure of the Civil Rights Movement, Ella Josephine Baker was a highly skilled activist who spent several decades developing, organising and mobilising people before, during and after the period of the movement.

Baker joined the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) in 1940, becoming director of branches between 1943 and 1946. Whilst there, Baker forged her own path – a feature of her life in traditionally male-dominated organisations – spending long stretches on the road organising alongside ordinary people and developing campaigns on issues ranging from lynchings to pay equality.

Resigning from the NAACP in 1946, in frustration at the organisation’s direction, Baker raised funds for the fight against Jim Crow laws in the deep South. She then joined Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, an organisation established to focus on nonviolent direct action targeting segregation across the South. Here, on top of her work at the grassroots, Baker is said to have played an integral role in determining the SCLC’s agenda and generating a framing for the organisation’s focus.

But Baker’s antipathy towards SCLC’s patriarchy and emphasis on charismatic leadership, coupled with her lack of concern for, or deference towards, the SCLC hierarchy, meant that Baker and Luther King butted heads. 

Growing increasingly exasperated, Baker formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) alongside student leaders of a series of sit-in demonstrations during 1960. This was Baker’s chance to embed her organisational vision, which she did by calling on the SNCC to reject any whiff of charismatic leadership style organising, in favour of collectivised decision making. The SNCC went on to co-organise the 1961 Freedom Rides and the 1964 Freedom Summer, the latter trying to tackle racism in Mississippi by running a large-scale voter registration campaign among African-American voters.

Baker remained committed to, and active in, the struggle for racial and social justice right up until her death at the age of 83. Eschewing any recognition for her work in favour of championing those who she developed and organised with, Baker valued her privacy. However, the magnitude of her influence is encapsulated in the nickname which was bestowed upon her: “Fundi”, a Swahili word meaning “one who imparts skills onto the next generation”.