Black History Month • Ella Joe Baker

Ella Jo Baker was a by occupation an activist from the day she was born. A woman of many words, she used her voice to advocate for those who couldn’t, or needed her help. Baker is a big part of the history of Black Americans, without her efforts we would not be in the positions we are today. She is best known for her criticisms of both racism in American culture and sexism in the civil rights movement. Biographer Barbara Ransby calls her “One of the most important American leaders of the twentieth century and perhaps the most influential women in the civil right movement.” 

Early Life

Ella Jo Baker was born on December 13, 1903, in Norfolk, Virginia and grew up in North Carolina. She developed a sense for social justice early on, due in part to her grandmother’s stories about life under slavery. Her grandmother’s pride and resilience in the face of racism and injustice continued to inspire Ms. Baker throughout her life. Baker’s maternal grandparents bought the plantation they were once enslaved on for $250. This purchase was the source of great pride for their family, and they went on to become successful farmers.

Baker studied at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina and as a student she challenged school policies that she thought were unfair. After graduating in 1927 as class valedictorian, she moved to New York City and began joining social activist organizations.

In 1930, she joined the Young Negroes Cooperative League, which was created to form cooperative groups that would pool community resources and provide less expensive goods and services to members among the black community. Baker was committed to economic justice for all people and once said, “People cannot be free until there is enough work in this land to give everybody a job.” 

In the late 1930’s she married T.J. Roberts, her college sweetheart. Baker kept her personal and marital life private much like many other women in the Civil Rights Movement, adopting a practice of dissemblance that allowed them to be accepted as individuals in the movement. They later divorced in 1958. 

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

Baker began her involvement with the NAACP working as a field secretary and eventually serving as director of branches from 1943 until 1946. Baker believed that the strength of an organization grew from the bottom up fighting to make the NAACP more democratic. Attempting to find a balance between voicing her concerns and maintaining a unified front. She was unhappy with the bureaucratic nature of the NAACP and resigned from her position in 1946. She later worked in the New York branch to integrate local schools and improve the quality of education for black children. 

In Friendship

Baker co-founded the organization In Friendship to raise money to fight against Jim Crow Laws in the deep South. This move was inspired by the historic bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. In 1957, Baker moved to Atlanta, meeting with a group of Southern black ministers and helped from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She also helped organize Martin Luther King’s new organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and ran a voter registration campaign called the Crusade for Citizenship.

Baker left the SCLC after the Greensboro sit-ins on February 1, 1960. A group of black college students from North Carolina A&T University refused to leave a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina where they had been denied service. She wanted to assist the new student activists because she viewed young, emerging activists as a resource and an asset to the movement. Baker organized a meeting at Shaw University for the student leaders of the sit-ins in April 1960. From that meeting, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was born.

Freedom Summer

In 1964 SNCC helped create Freedom Summer, an effort to focus national attention on Mississippi’s racism and to register black voters. The SNCC became the most active organization in the deeply oppressed Mississippi Delta. It was more open to women than the other prominent Civil Right organizations, Baker found that a lot of these organizations witnessed extensive misogyny & suppression of women activists. But here Baker was heard and used her voice to push that voting was one key to freedom. Today, that is still the case: if we do not exercise our collective voice, we are unable to influence the policies and laws that impact our lives. To be counted, we must be heard.

In 1967 Baker returned to New York City continuing her work in activism. She would go on to collaborate with Arthur Kinoy and others to form the Mass Party Organizing Committee, a socialist organization. Then in 1972 she traveled the country to support the “Free Angela” campaign, demanding the release of Angela Davis on charges of kidnapping and murder, eventually acquitted. 

Baker also supported the Puerto Rican independence movement and spoke out against apartheid in South Africa. She allied with a number of women’s groups, Third World Women’s Alliance and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. 

Baker remained an activist until her death on her 83rd birthday, December 13th, 1986.

Special thanks to the author, Shelby Tyre. For more Black History, click here.

Categories: Black History Month