Ella Baker

(1903-1986) African-American civil rights and human rights activist

Ella Baker (December 13, 1903 – December 13, 1986) was an African-American civil rights and human rights activist. She was a largely behind-the-scenes organizer whose career spanned more than five decades, including a lot of work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She worked alongside some of the most famous civil rights leaders of the 20th century, including W. E. B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, A. Philip Randolph, and Martin Luther King Jr. She also mentored many emerging activists, such as Diane Nash, Stokely Carmichael, Rosa Parks, and Bob Moses (activist).


  • Remember, we are not fighting for the freedom of the Negro alone, but for the freedom of the human spirit, a larger freedom that encompasses all mankind.
  • Until the killing of black men, black mothers' sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother's son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens. (1964)
    • Grant, Joanne, film, Fundi: The Story of Ella Baker (Icarus Films, 1981)
  • The development of the individual to his highest potential for the benefit of the group.
    • The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader: documents, speeches and firsthand accounts from the Black Freedom Struggle, 1954–1990, ed. Clayborne Carson et al. (Penguin Books, 1991), p. 121.
  • Strong people do not need strong leaders.
  • "You didn't see me on television, you didn't see news stories about me," she told two writers, Ellen Cantarow and Susan Gushee O'Malley. "The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don't need strong leaders."
    • The New York Times, Obituary, by C. Gerald Fraser, December 17, 1986

1970 Interview in Black Women in White America: A Documentary History by Gerda Lerner

  • In my organizational work, I have never thought in terms of my "making a contribution." I just thought of myself as functioning where there was a need. And if I have made a contribution I think it may be that I had some influence on a large number of people.
  • As assistant field secretary of the branches of the NAACP, much of my work was in the South. At that time the NAACP was the leader on the cutting edge of social change. I remember when NAACP membership in the South was the basis for getting beaten up or even killed.
  • You would go into areas where people were not yet organized in the NAACP and try to get them more involved. Maybe you would start with some simple thing like the fact that they had no street lights, or the fact that in the given area somebody had been arrested or had been jailed in a manner that was considered illegal and unfair, and the like. You would deal with whatever the local problem was, and on the basis of the needs of the people you would try to organize them in the NAACP.
  • Black people who were living in the South were constantly living with violence. Part of the job was to help them to understand what that violence was and how they in an organized fashion could help to stem it. 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 even when it was perpetrated by the police or, in some instances, the state.
  • My basic sense of it has always been to get people to understand that in the long run they themselves are the only protection they have against violence or injustice.
  • People have to be made to understand that they cannot look for salvation anywhere but to themselves.
  • When the 1954 Supreme Court decision on school desegregation came, I was serving as chairman of the Educational Committee of the New York branch. We began to deal with the problems of de facto segregation, and the results of the de facto segregation which were evidenced largely in the achievement levels of black children, going down instead of going up after they entered public school.
  • I've never believed that the people really were willing and able to pay the price of integration. From a practical standpoint, anyone who looked at the Harlem area knew that the potential for integration per se was basically impossible unless there were some radically innovative things done. And those innovative things would not be acceptable to those who ran the school system, nor to communities, nor even to the people who call themselves supporters of integration.
  • I did a good deal of speaking, and I went to Queens, I went to the upper West side, and the people very eagerly said they wanted school integration. But when you raised the question of whether they would permit or would welcome Blacks to live in the same houses with them, which was the only practical way at that stage to achieve integration, they squirmed.
  • to me, when people themselves know what they are looking for and recognize that they can exercise some influence by action, that's progress.
  • after SNCC came into existence, of course, it opened up a new era of struggle.
  • I have always felt it was a handicap for oppressed peoples to depend so largely upon a leader, because unfortunately in our culture, the charismatic leader usually becomes a leader because he has found a spot in the public limelight. It usually means he has been touted through the public media, which means that the media made him, and the media may undo him. 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. Such people get so involved with playing the game of being important that they exhaust themselves and their time, and they don't do the work of actually organizing people.
  • The movement of the '50's and '60's was carried largely by women, since it came out of church groups. It was sort of second nature to women to play a supportive role. How many made a conscious decision on the basis of the larger goals, how many on the basis of habit pattern, I don't know. But it's true that the number of women who carried the movement is much larger than that of men. Black women have had to carry this role, and I think the younger women are insisting on an equal footing.
  • From the standpoint of the historical pattern of the society, which seems to assume that this (supporting roles) is the best role for women, I think that certainly the young people who are challenging this ought to be challenging it, and it ought to be changed.
  • I think you have to have a certain sense of your own value, and a sense of security on your part, to be able to forgo the glamor of what the leadership role offers.
  • I have always thought what is needed is the development of people who are interested not in being leaders as much as in developing leadership among other people.
  • Every time I see a young person who has come through the system to a stage where he could profit from the system and identify with it, but who identifies more with the struggle of black people who have not had his chance, every time I find such a person I take new hope. I feel a new life as a result of

Quotes about Ella Baker

  • as activist historian Barbara Ransby has emphasized, we cannot romanticize leaderlessness. She recently pointed out that: "Those who romanticize the concept of leaderless movements often misleadingly deploy Ella Baker's words, "Strong people don't need [a] strong leader." Baker delivered this message in various iterations over her fifty-year career working in the trenches of racial-justice struggles, but what she meant was specific and contextual. She was calling for people to disinvest from the notion of the messianic, charismatic leader who promises political salvation in exchange for deference. Baker also did not mean that movements would naturally emerge without collective analysis, serious strategizing, organizing, mobilizing and consensus building."
  • It's like, why? You're going to burn out. It's not humanly possible for you to just be your Lone Ranger self out there in the world. Ella Baker's question, "Who are your people?" when she would meet you is so important. Who are you accountable to in this world? Because that will tell me a lot about who you are.
  • In the present era of devalued dreams and mocked hopes, we need to confront immoral power with moral power. That was the message of SNCC founder Ella Baker and the essence of the 1960s movements.
  • what happened, I think, was Ella Baker was really sort of the godmother for SNCC. I met Ella in the summer of 1960. And in the spring of 1960, she had taken the initiative to get the student sit-in energy at Shaw, her alma mater, and held off on the big civil rights leaders, to say, “Look, the kids ought to have the opportunity to manage their own insurgency,” right? And so, SNCC was the encapsulation of the sit-in movement, the energy of the sit-in movement, right? And so, that — and SNCC took that energy into the Freedom Rides, because it was the SNCC energy which said to the president of the United States and the attorney general, “It doesn’t matter what you’re saying, that, you know, there’s some danger here. Our lives are in danger, but we’ve decided that, with our lives, this is what we want to do.” Right? And so, SNCC, really, and those students became the example for students all over the country — right? — the idea that students should draw a line in the sand and say, “Look, that’s it. That’s enough. We don’t want to live in this country unless we can change it.”
  • I idolize Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker. And they are supreme examples of what being freedom fighters, principled, fearless — or at least courageous. There’s a difference between being fearless and being courageous. Courageous is actually better, because everyone should have some fear about what might actually harm them...Ella Baker, of course, she was a person — among so many other things, she worked for all of the major civil rights organizations at some time. So she had experience across organizations. She also was doing that grassroots, very, very dangerous organizing in the Jim Crow South, in little towns, in rural areas. But she is probably best known for the person who inspired and made possible the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which is SNCC.
  • one of the greatest radical Democrats in the twentieth century.
  • The practical and philosophical contribution of Ella Baker to SNCC, the southern civil rights movement, and the entire student movement cannot be overestimated. Baker asserted that what the movement needed was "the development of people who are interested not in being leaders as much as in developing leadership among other people." Baker nurtured this potential in the Black southern student movement. SNCC was created as a coordinating body to bring together and maximize the effectiveness of the local student movements. Baker, then fifty-six years old and increasingly frustrated with the hierarchical style of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which she had helped develop, challenged the students to consider the strategic question "[w]here do we go from here?"
    • Debra L. Schultz Going South: Jewish Women in the Civil Rights Movement (2002)
  • The laudable move away from lavishing attention solely on charismatic leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. to giving credit to behind-the-scenes Black women catalysts like Ella Baker has created more space for examining the contributions of Black and white women on the ground.
    • Debra L. Schultz Going South: Jewish Women in the Civil Rights Movement (2002)
  • In 1969, Ella Baker, SNCC’s great mentor, pointed us in the direction of meaningful action when she said, “In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become a part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed.” This means that we are going to have to learn to think in radical terms. I use the term radical in its original meaning – getting down to and understanding the root cause. Baker continued, “It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system.”
  • women played a crucial role in those early dangerous years of organizing in the South, and were looked on with admiration. Many of these were older women like Ella Baker, and Amelia Boynton in Selma, Alabama, and "Mama Dolly" in Albany, Georgia.

Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (1964)

  • (Ella Baker) is more responsible than any other single individual for the birth of the new abolitionists as an organized group, and who remains the most tireless, the most modest, and the wisest activist I know in the struggle for human rights today.
  • Then Ella Baker spoke, holding before the crowd, as she did so often, a vision beyond the immediate: "Even if segregation is gone, we will still need to be free; we will still have to see that everyone has a job. Even if we can all vote, but if people are still hungry, we will not be free.... Singing alone is not enough; we need schools and learning.... Remember, we are not fighting for the freedom of the Negro alone, but for the freedom of the human spirit, a larger freedom that encompasses all mankind."
  • The complexity of it all is perhaps revealed in a brief exchange which took place at a SNCC meeting between James Baldwin and Ella Baker. Someone had asked Baldwin about the role of whites in the movement. He replied, "A white man is a white man only if he says he is-but you haven't got to be white." Then Ella Baker added, "The place of the Negro is not as a Negro, but as a human being." And Baldwin said, "That's right." Later, Ella Baker returned to that idea and, noting Baldwin's exhortation that whites coming into the movement should forget they're white, said, "We too must forget we're Negro." Responding to what she detected as a rising mood of something akin to black nationalism among some SNCC workers, she said: "I can understand that as we grow in our own strength and as we flex our muscles of leadership... we can begin to feel that the other fellow should come through us. But this is not the way to create a new world.... We need to penetrate the mystery of life and perfect the mastery of life, and the latter requires understanding that human beings are human beings."
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