Ella Baker

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Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker, and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Ransby argued that Ella Baker did not represent a particular wing of the Black Freedom Movement, or any tendency of the American left; Baker conceived a political vision and an inclusive style of leadership. Ransby maintained that Baker’s long-term goal was simple a more democratic, classless, and humane world (12). Chapters 1 through 6 covered the years 1903 to the mid-1950s, and the beginnings of Baker’s work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). In addition to the SCLC, Ella Baker worked for an alphabet soup of other organizations, which she founded or was pivotal to the organization of from the 1930s to the 1950s. Childhood strongly influenced Ella Baker; the Baker family was what could be termed upper middle class. They saw themselves as representatives of their race to whites and role models to those less fortunate in their community. Ransby argued that presented with the paradox of being part of and yet apart from the group, Ella Baker chose to affiliate herself with the most oppressed people (poor blacks) and the most able to foment social change through collective action. Thus, she rejected society’s template of middle-class womanhood and its other dominant ideologies.

Baker’s identification with the most oppressed was reinforced by her education at Shaw Academy. Ransby argued that the critical questioning and the rebellious nature that Baker had demonstrated in her youth became more ingrained during her time at Shaw. Before Baker graduated in 1927, she was known to have been involved in three protests. However, her activity in those protests demonstrated Baker to be, in Ransby’s words, “a polite dissident, and a reluctant rebel” (59). After graduation, Ella Baker worked her way to Harlem. Ransby argued that it was during Baker’s time in Harlem that she became a radical activist and a grassroots organizer.

By 1938, Baker realized that fundamental social change was needed if progress was to be made, thus she joined the NAACP. By 1940, Ella Baker was assistant field secretary for the organization. Baker and others like her were on the ground in the South fighting battles for social and economic justice for African Americans and giving meaning to the national black freedom slogan of double victory, victory against fascism abroad, and racism at home.

Ransby maintained that Baker believed that people did not need to be led; “they needed to be given the skills, information, and opportunity to lead themselves” (142). That belief and Baker’s need to tell the truth to power caused the organization to marginalize her, and in 1946, Baker resigned her national post. From 1952 to 1953 Ella Baker led the New York NAACP, during that time the branch formed coalitions with other groups in the city, and carried out aggressive campaigns for school reform, desegregation, and to end police brutality. Ransby maintained that Baker accomplished that while trying to avoid the divisiveness of Cold War politics. In 1957, Baker began working with the SCLC. However, she doubted whether the organization could accomplish its goals. The first six chapters clearly established Baker’s leadership style, which differed from both the NAACP and the SCLC. That made Baker’s tenure with both organizations difficult for her.