An NAACP Anniversary: Looking Back at Ella Baker

Today, February 12th, 2010, marks the 101st anniversary of one of the nation’s most important organizations, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Because of today’s important nature, we want to focus on someone central to the organization’s success, as well as many more victories in the civil rights movement.

Born in 1903, Ella Baker was involved in some of the most crucial moments in the struggle for civil rights. With Martin Luther King, Jr., she founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In the early 1960’s she served as chief political adviser for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Baker’s input in the NAACP was revolutionary–turning the spotlight away from northern intellectuals and aristocrats in order to put more emphasis into being on the front lines and doing field work in the deep South.

In the following passage from Barbara Ransby’s award-winning book, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision, published by UNC Press, the author recounts Baker’s approach to creating greater success for the NAACP and its newsletter, the Crisis:

Baker wanted to build as large a base for the NAACP as she could. She conveyed to Assistant Secretary Roy Wilkins her ideas for “increasing the Crisis circulation and bolstering my campaign efforts [by visiting] some of the pool-rooms, boot black parlors, bars and grilles,” with the aim of “having a Crisis made available to regular patrons of the business.” These forays into traditionally male domains–obvious gender transgression–exemplify Baker’s habit of pushing the boundaries of acceptable behavior for a respectable, middle-class, married woman during the 1940s. In her letter to Wilkins, she described this activity as the result of her strong “desire to place the NAACP and its program on the lips of all the people . . . the uncouth MASSES included.” Baker used this expression sarcastically: in her thinking, the masses were not “uncouth”; rather, they were central to her political vision for change. her style of organizing always focused on how she could make a campaign, an issue, or an organization have greater appeal to the mass of ordinary people.

Baker’s influence during her fifteen years with the NAACP in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s changed and influenced not only that organization, but all of the most famous groups of the American Civil Rights Movement. Baker went on to serve as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for two years. After that, she put together summits at her alma mater,  Shaw University, that resulted in the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Without Ella Baker’s efforts, the NAACP–and the entirety of the civil rights movement–would be remarkably different: far less democratic, far less focused on the masses, and likely far less successful.

Just as Shaw University served as a home base for Baker’s work fifty years ago, it will be the site of more activism this weekend–on Saturday morning, HK on J 4, (the 4th annual “Historic Thousands on Jones Street” event) will involve a march from Shaw to the Legislative Building on Jones Street in Raleigh. Led by Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, President of the North Carolina Conference NCAAP, the march will focus on the delivery of a 14-point social justice agenda to those in power in North Carolina. Update: Due to expected snowfall across the state again tonight, the HKonJ People’s Assembly march and rally has been postponed to February 27.