Ella Baker (1903 – 1986)

Written By Adrienne Dunn

Raised in Littleton, North Carolina, Ella Baker was class valedictorian when she graduated  from Shaw University in 1927. After graduating, she moved to Harlem, New York. There she became the national director of the Young Negroes Cooperative League, an organization geared toward developing black economic power through planning.

In the 1940s, Baker became involved with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and traveled across the South to gain support among black Southerners for creating local branches. This action was the foundation of the Civil Rights Movement. As noted by historian William S. Powell, Baker persuaded the Tar Heel State’s branch presidents in 1943 to form the North Carolina Conference of Branches, and she then helped revitalize several of the state’s local civil rights organizations.

While Ella Baker served as the first national director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Martin Luther King, Jr., joined the organization’s ranks. Shortly afterward, disagreements between the two leaders prompted Baker to leave; the two had disagreed concerning the hierarchical structure of the organization. Countering King’s philosophy, Baker argued that “strong people don’t need strong leaders.”

Following the 1960 sit-in initiated by four black students from North Carolina A&T State University, Baker formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at Shaw University. With its decentralized organization, SNCC offered students, women, and poor blacks an opportunity to play major roles in the Civil Rights Movement. In particular, young SNCC leaders incorporated Baker’s philosophies of “militant antiracism,” grassroots organization, and subverting traditional class and gender hierarchies. Baker left North Carolina in 1964 and returned to New York City to continue working to advance human rights causes. She died in 1986.