Part 2 on Ella Baker’s biography by Barbara Ransby (part 1 is here) — and the more exciting part really, because in the SCLC and SNCC and SCEF Baker was able to do more of what she wanted to do. I’m reading J. Todd Moye’s biography of Ella Baker as well just now, and it cleared up one point of my confusion — the way that everyone respectfully called her Miss Baker even though she was married. That is what felt right to me earlier because I must have read it elsewhere, but I questioned myself and wrote something different. so I’m going to have to go back and take out the references to Mrs Baker.
Anyway, in 1957, Ella Baker traveled south with Bayard Rustin as a representative of In Friendship to become part of the founding of the SCLC. There she saw the Women’s Political Council in action, who had helped launch the Montgomery bus boycott, and she applauded the formation of MIA, Montgomery Improvement Association to lead the struggle outside the structures of NAACP.
While Rustin and Levinson both became part of King’s inner circle, Miss Baker was left out. She later said:
After all, who was I? I was female, I was old. I didn’t have any PhD.” (173)
And she questioned everything, especially King.
She describes the boycott, and the hope and excitement it raised among movement folks, as:
unpredicted, where thousands of individuals, just black ordinary people, subjected themselves to inconveniences that were certainly beyond the thinking of most folk. . . . This meant you had a momentum that had not been seen, even in the work of the NAACP. And it was something that suggested the potential for widespread action throughout the South. (162)
SCLC was founded to provide an institutional framework to connect and strengthen struggle beyond Montgomery. It also made a strategic decision to stay away from a too-left politics — interesting that ‘Christian’ was at least partially included in the name to help distance it from any association with communism. It emphasized in these stages that it was only demanding the same rights as everyone else.
Once it was decided that the new coalition would be an extension of the church, a patriarchal ethos took over. (175) Women like Rosa Parks and Joanne Gibson Robinson were pushed out of leadership positions, Daisy Bates remained the only woman with a nominal seat on the board, but no power. In 1958, Miss Baker was drafted as full time staff into SCLC — as with the NAACP she was not properly asked, more put into a position where her refusal would hurt the cause. Still, she accepted, and moved down to Atlanta. She knew what she was in for, though:
Baker was well aware that the SCLC ministers were not ready to welcome her into the organization on an equal footing. That would be to go too far afield from the gender relations they were used to in the church. Baker observed that “the role of women in the southern the church. . . was that of doing the things that the minister said he wanted to have done. It was not one in which they were credited with having creativity and initiative and capacity to carry out things.”
Ministers ‘most comfortable talking to women about “how well they cooked, and how beautiful they looked.”‘ (184)
She remained active in Parents in Action, NAACP, SCLC, In Friendship — for her it was always about building movement rather than organization. In this she was very similar to a number of local NAACP officers who were willing to work with anyone on the ground towards change. All of her work was concretely connected to people’s lives and needs. For example, Baker’s reconnaissance trip in Mississippi for In Friendship after the SCLC’s founding:
Baker soon realized that In Friendship would be hard pressed to make a real distinction between families who were victims of political reprisals and those who were victims of economic violence, pure and simple, since such violence saturated the social and political landscape of the rural South. (176)
I wanted to hear more about her views on economic violence. She often disagreed with those she worked closely with, able to hold to her own beliefs while continuing to work with others. For example here is Miss Baker on nonviolence, contrasting herself with Rustin:
He had a history of dedication to the concept of nonviolence. I have no such history; I have no such commitment. Not historically or even now can I claim that because that’s not my way of functioning. (193)
This was clear in her rather famous 1959 speech in Pilgrim Chruch, Monroe calling for self-defense. Further in the biography, Ransby writes:
Ella Baker’s ability to sustain long-term friendships with other activists when particular circumstances put them in adversarial positions was one of her most important gifts. (284)
She also disagreed with many in the NAACP — for example, the kinds of attitudes expressed by Roy Wilkins:
“We must clean up and educate and organize our own people, not because they must be perfect in order to be accorded their rights, but they cannot be first-class citizens in truth until they appreciate the responsibilities of that station.” Baker’s view was quite different. Poor people would not have to be made deserving of their citizenship or their economic claims; such rights were fundamental. (226)
She could be quite critical of class judgments:
There’s always a problem in the minority group that’s escalating up the ladder in this culture . . . it’s a problem of their not understanding the possibility of being divorced from those who are not in their social classification.
I believe firmly in the right of the people who were under the heel to be the ones to decide what action they were going to take to get [out] from under their oppression. (195)
More from Miss Baker on exactly why the middle classes could not be depended upon to bring about real change:
those who are well-heeled don’t want to get un-well-heeled….If they are acceptable to the Establishment and they’re wielding power which serves their interest, they can assume too readily that that also serves the interest of everybody. (305-306)
Along these same lines, she was also fierce proponent of decentralization, local control over campaigns and power and responsibility in people’s own hands. Ransby writes:
Her main contribution to the civil rights movement during her years with SCLC was not the building of a solid regional coalition, which was what King had hired her to do, but rather the strengthening of several semi-independent local struggles, which were more connected to one another and to itinerant organizers like Baker than they were to the official SCLC leadership in Atlanta. (209)
On leadership, here is Ransby quoting Baker:
Instead of the leader as a person who was supposed to be a magic man, you could develop individuals who were bound together by a concept that benefited the larger number of individuals and provided an opportunity for them to grow into being responsible for carrying out a program.
to follow on from that, one of her most famous lines I think:
Strong people don’t need strong leaders. (188)
This, of course, put her into conflict with King and the men who dominated the movement at this time.
What I love most are the moments you get to see Ella Baker relaxing with the other women who formed the backbone of this movement, like on this visit to Azalea Johnson in Monroe (and always the reminder just how brave they all were):
The three women sat at Azalea Johnson’s kitchen table, Dorothy remembered, drinking Jim Beam bourbon, discussing the political situation in the South and remembering Raymond. Even more memorable than the conversation was the image of black men sitting in the front room and on the front porch with loaded pistols at their sides… (215)
Baker kept her maiden name after her marriage, kept her rpivate life private, and did all she did while also helping raise her niece, as well as taking over the guardianship of Brenda Travis, who had lied about her age to join SNCC sit-in. She was detained, sent to Colored Girls Industrial School after another protest, did not have support of strong family. Baker managed all of these roles in ways that I find rather jaw-dropping, but it was accomplished through the strong community that she created around herself.
Ella Baker’s legacy can perhaps best be seen through SNCC — I appreciated this insight from Ransby:
Since Baker never wrote an organizing manual or an ideological treatise, her theory was literally inscribed in her daily work–her practice. Some of the most powerful political lessons that she taught were through example, which represented an articulation of her unwritten theory in a conscious set of actions and practices. (271)
Also as an organiser, it is clear that almost a lifetime of experience and huge amounts of work and thought lay behind that first conference at Shaw to support the founding of SNCC, the orchestration of talks and workshops, and the creation of plenty of time and space for private brainstorms, the meeting of small groups and etc. I feel like no one really gets how much creative work and hard grind lies in that until they part of something similar. Creating such spaces is hard, but she was instrumental to SNCC in other ways, ensuring that problems of justice were never narrowed to a simple issue of race and that the leading roles of women, and youth and the poor in the struggle be respected:
She was instrumental in SNCC’s rejection of bourgeois respectability as a defensive political strategy, a rejection that opened the organization up to historically marginalized sectors of the black community. When SNCC broke with the largely middle-class, male-centered leadership of existing civil rights organizations, it stripped away the class-based and gender-biased notions of who should and could give leadership to the movement and the black community. (259)
She also insisted on movement as being about relationships, connections, not mobilisation and dues and top-down battles on the lines of the NAACP.
The shift from transitory, high-profile events like the sit-ins and freedom rides to protracted day-to-day grassroots organizing in local communities was a significant turning point. Baker insisted that a movement was a web of social relationships…In order to be effective organizers in a particular community, Baker argued, activists had to form relationships, build trust, and engage in a democratic process of decision making together with community members. The goal was to politicize the community and empower ordinary people. this was Baker’s model, and in 1961 it became SNCC’s model.
This is the community organising model in a nutshell. Bottom up. Respectful. I like the acknowledgement that such respect isn’t always easy to embody either, and how she pushed SNCC through dialogue:
She urged SNCC organizers to suppress their own egos and personal and organizational ambitions as much as possible and to approach local communities with deference and humility. She stressed the need to resist organizational chauvinism or any attempts to make proprietary claims on political campaigns that might emerge from their efforts. Finally, she rejected the notion that the black middle class had special claims on leadership of the black community. …. she urged SNCC organizers to look first to the bottom of the class hierarchy in the black community, not to the top, for their inspiration, insights, and constituency…. people who would demonstrate to the first-hand the willingness, ability, and determination of oppressed people to resist and overcome their oppression while speaking for themselves… (274)
Thus SNCC attempted to organise the whole community, not just the middle classes. When they first went into a community, they started by talking to clergy and any others who had claims on being representatives of community, but they knocked on everyone’s doors.
Bob Moses said “We did for the people of Mississippi what Ella Baker did for us.” … he meant … absorb the wisdom of indigenous leaders, to build respectfully on the preexisting strength within the communities where they organized, and to provide whatever was lacking–funds, time, youthful energy, and certain skills. (303)
Ransby gives a wonderful quote from SNCC organiser Jane Stembridge:
The field staff saw itself as playing a very crucial but temporary role in this whole thing. Go into a community. As soon as local leadership begins to emerge, get out of the community, so that the leadership will take hold and people will not continue to turn to you for guidance. You work yourself out of a job rather than trying to maintain yourself in a position or your organization. It doesn’t matter if you go in and call yourself a SNCC worker or a CORE worker or just a person who is there. (280)
And of course Baker’s own motto:
I was never working for an organization. I always tried to work for a cause. And that cause was bigger than any organization. (281)
She remained pragmatic though, supporting the influx of white privileged students in order to highlight what was happening in the South, to expose the relentless violence, to get some coverage and maybe help the broader community to care. Ransby quotes her as saying:
If we can simply let the concept that the rest of the nation bears responsibility for what happens in Mississippi sink in, then we will have accomplished something. (322)
Ransby talks a little about the development of the Freedom Schools, education was always one of the methods closest to Baker’s heart. SNCC established over 50 alternative classrooms for political organizing and popular education, run by Charlie Cobb, Robert Moses, and Staughton Lynd among others.
This highlighted for me one of the strange absences here, as Ransby tries to differentiate them from SCLC’s Citizenship schools by highlighting that Freedom Schools went way beyond teaching literacy for voting tests. In Septima Clark’s vision coming out of Highlander, this was never to have been the only role of Citizenship schools, but maybe it’s an indication of how routinized these had become under the SCLC?
Myles Horton and Highlander are interesting absences here — not that they don’t appear at all. As an aside, Ransby notes Baker as attending a conference there on one occasion, and later that she worked to defend Highlander from closure. In another brief mention Ransby connects SNCC to Horton, and notes Baker starting up a new fundraising group called Operation Freedom in 1961 with Horton, the Bradens and others to again funnel money to activists for emergencies. I was disappointed, though, not to learn more about Baker’s friendship with Rosa Parks, Myles Horton or Septima Clark. So I found it interesting that Baker’s theories are compared to Paolo Freire’s, a worthy comparison but interesting in the absence of Myles Horton and others from Highlander.
There is a brief note on education and the connection to Tanzania — but that remained undeveloped as well. Rightly so as it was a bit of a tangent perhaps
Moses also shared Baker’s confidence and faith in young people. After leaving SNCC in the mid-1960s and living for several years in Tanzania, he became a radical teacher, in Ella Baker’s style and tradition, focused on creative methods of teaching and learning as a strategy for empowerment and social change. (252)
But I would like to know more about connections to Africa and Nyerere’s Ujamaa movement.
A last absence was more about the concerted attack on the NAACP in the south after Brown v Board, the number of people who lost their jobs by refusing to renounce NAACP membership — and the number of people who did renounce it. The number of branches that shut down all together, and all of them people that Ella knew, had visited, had encouraged to form branches and become members in the first place. That must have had a huge impact on her. Huge. But it isn’t really visible.
I wanted a little more on the Southern Conference Education Fund run by Anne and Carl Braden, and founded by Jim Dombrowski who had helped found Highlander with Myles Horton way back in 1932. In 1963 Baker began working for SCEF, doing much the same as she had always done — whatever she thought was most needed to support local organising. The difference seemed to be that SCEF supported that. But I tracked down what seems to be the solitary book written on SCEF, which I am looking forward to reading and finding more.
To end here (though I will write more on Moye’s take on Baker), a final quote from Ella Baker that emphasises the longevity of the freedom struggle, the ways that things just haven’t changed fast enough, and the work that all those she has inspired should be continuing in, particularly in support of Black Lives Matter:
Until the killing of black mothers’ sons is as important as the killing of white mothers’ sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest. (335)
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