On July 26, a mural entitled SERVICE was dedicated at UNC’s School of Government in the Knapp-Sanders Building. The mural depicting a gathering of African-American figures from throughout North Carolina’s history seated at the counter of a diner was painted by Colin Quashie as a creative interpretation of the historic 1960 Greensboro, North Carolina sit-in. We’ll be posting about a new element of the mural each Tuesday in the coming weeks. Read our first post here.

The second panel of the SERVICE mural, called Pea Island Lifesavers, shows, in the foreground, Ella Jo Baker, James Edward Shepard, and William C. Smith. Shepard founded a school for religious training in Durham that eventually became known as North Carolina Central University. NCCU is celebrating its centennial this year. Smith was the editor of the Charlotte Messenger, the first African American newspaper in Charlotte. In the background are images of crew members from Pea Island, a life-saving station on the Outer Banks that was the first Coast Guard site to have a black commanding officer and all black crew.

bakerElla Baker stands out as one of the most important women contributing to the civil rights movement. After graduating from Shaw University, she began her career as a journalist and moved on to become a community leader and organizer as a member of the NAACP. Her work led to the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary earlier this year.

In the award-winning book Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision, Barbara Ransby chronicles Baker’s work to empower blacks through grassroots movements. Baker’s career as an activist spanned five decades, an impressive amount of time for anyone, but particularly for a black woman during a time of strong racial and gender inequalities. We recommend Ransby’s book for the in-depth coverage of Baker’s life and the analysis of the civil rights movement from a behind-the-scenes approach.

From Ransby’s Introduction:

Ella Baker was concerned with the plight of African Americans, but she was also passionately committed to a broader humanitarian struggle for a better world. Over the course of her life, she was involved in more than thirty major political campaigns and organizations, addressing such issues as the war in Vietnam, Puerto Rican independence, South African apartheid, political repression, prison conditions, poverty, unequal education, and sexism. Still, because of who she was–a daughter of the Jim Crow South and a granddaughter of slaves–and because of the political analysis she formulated early in her career, which was centered on antiracist politics, Baker’s primary frame of reference was the African American experience and the struggle for black freedom.

[. . . ]

Ella Baker’s life gives us a sense of the connections and continuities that link together a long tradition of African American resistance. Each intergenerational organization she joined, each story she told, each lesson she passed on was part of the connective tissue that formed the body politic of the Black Freedom Movement in the United States from the 1930s into the 1980s. Following Baker’s path back through the years, trying to look at national and world events from her vantage point, takes us to different sites of struggle, opens up different windows of conversation, and pushes us into different people’s lives than if we were to have someone else as our guide.

Baker was a remarkable woman, and her influence persists today–in the hearts of individuals who continue to work for social justice and in the organizations that carry her name, such as the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Ella’s Daughters.

Check back next Tuesday for more on the SERVICE mural.