One of the leading figures of the Civil Rights Movement which took place in the 1950s and 1960s, Ella Baker, was born in Virginia in 1903. Growing up in North Carolina, Baker had a close relationship with her grandmother, a former slave, and heard narrations of many of the experiences which the latter lived through.
Baker was an intelligent child and attended Shaw University in Raleigh, becoming the valedictorian for the batch of 1927. Upon graduating, she relocated to New York City where she juggled between various jobs to fulfill her basic needs. Before she became involved in Civil Rights Movement, Baker contributed to the start-up of a club, Young Negroes’ Cooperative League, which permitted its members to accumulate their funds in order to benefit from better deals on goods and services. In the preceding years, she also served on the editorial boards of American West Indian News and Negro National News.
Beginning work for the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) in 1938, Baker frequently travelled to various parts of the country in order to raise funds and recruit new people to the NAACP. Initially starting off as a field secretary, Baker was promoted to the organization’s national director of branches for her extensive work in issues related to job training and equal pay for black workers. Realizing the demanding nature of the job, Baker resigned in 1946 to look after her niece but continued work with the New York branch for better academic prospects of black children.
In 1953, Ella Baker ran for New York City Council on the Liberal Party ticket. Following this failure, the independent individual worked as Director of the Harlem Division of the New York City Committee of the American Cancer Society.
Four years later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asked Baker to take up the position of Executive Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a civil rights group headed by African Americans, to which she agreed. It was Baker who initiated the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960, the same year in which she left the SCLC. SNCC, however, continued to gain support from Baker who later helped the committee form the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964 in opposition to the state’s Democratic Party.
Under Baker’s influence, the SNCC also established itself as one of the foremost advocates for human rights in the country, earning her the title of Fundi, a Swahili word which translates to a person who teaches a craft to the following generation.
Starting in 1962, Ella Baker joined the Southern Conference Education Fund for five years, encouraging black and white people to work together. During the same time frame, she organized a civil liberties conference in Washington, D.C, and collaborated with Carl Braden on a mock civil rights commission hearing in North Carolina.
In her later years, the activist served on the board of the Puerto Rican Solidarity Committee, along with being the Founder and President of the Fund for Education and Legal Defense, which raised money so to assist civil right activists with college scholarships. Added to her list of credentials are the services she provided to Social and Racial Justice of the Episcopal Church, Third World Women’s Coordinating Committee and the Coalition of Concerned Black Americans.
Passing away on the day of her 83rd birthday in 1986, Ella Baker raised political awareness amongst people by raising issues which were not discussed otherwise. While she lived, she had the ability to influence people with her actions and her contributions to the black society continue to inspire people to date.