|Lived:||December 13, 1903—December 13, 1986 (aged 83)|
Ella Josephine Baker was a civil rights activist whose organizational, behind-the-scenes work made her one of the most important figures in the Civil Rights Movement. She emphasized the importance of a grassroots approach over charismatic leadership within the movement.
Baker was born on December 13, 1903, in Norfolk, Virginia, and grew up in North Carolina. After graduating from Shaw University in 1927, she moved to New York. In 1931, while working as an editorial assistant at the Negro National News, Baker joined the Young Negroes Cooperative League and soon became its national director. She also worked for the Worker's Education Project of the Works Progress Administration, teaching courses in consumer education, labor history and African history.
In 1938, Baker joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and began working there as a secretary in 1940, traveling across the South to raise money and organize local chapters. In 1942, she became director of branches and the highest-ranking woman in the NAACP. In 1946, she left that position to serve as a volunteer. She joined the New York branch, becoming its president in 1952. She resigned in 1953 for an unsuccessful run for the New York City Council on the Liberal Party ticket.
From 1957 to 1960, Baker was a member of of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, first serving as associate director, then following the resignation of the director, as interim executive director, a position she held for two and a half years. In April 1960, Baker organized the Southwide Youth Leadership Conference at Shaw University for the student leaders of the sit-ins at the Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1, 1960. The conference lead to the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Baker resigned from her position with the SCLC and became a leading advisor with SNCC.
In 1964 Baker helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and accompanied a MFDP delegation to the 1964 National Democratic Party convention. Although the delegation was not seated, the MFDP forced a rule change after the 1968 convention that allowed women and minorities to be seated as delegates at the 1972 convention, and their influence on the Democratic Party later helped to elect Black leaders in Mississippi.
From 1962 to 1967, Baker worked for the Southern Conference Education Fund. In 1967, she moved back to New York City, where she remained an activist.
Baker died on December 13, 1986.
“Who Was Ella Baker?” Ella Baker Center. Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Accessed January 16, 2020. https://ellabakercenter.org/about/who-was-ella-baker.
Scelfo, Julie. “MLK Day: Meet Ella Baker, Mother of Civil Rights Movement.” Time. Time, January 16, 2017. https://time.com/4633460/mlk-day-ella-baker/.