(1903-1986) Activist, Organizer, Movement Leader, played a key role in some of the most influential organizations of the time, including the NAACP, Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Like her, we spark change by unlocking the power of every person to strengthen their communities and shape their future. Ella Jo Baker was born on December 13, 1903, in Norfolk, Virginia. Growing up in North Carolina, she developed a sense for social justice early on, due in part to her grandmother’s stories about life under slavery. As a slave, her grandmother had been whipped for refusing to marry a man chosen for her by the slave owner. Her grandmother’s pride and resilience in the face of racism and injustice continued to inspire Ms. Baker throughout her life. Baker studied at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. As a student she challenged school policies that she thought were unfair. After graduating in 1927 as class valedictorian, she moved to New York City and began joining social activist organizations. In 1930, she joined the Young Negroes Cooperative League, whose purpose was to develop black economic power through collective planning. She also involved herself with several women’s organizations. She was committed to economic justice for all people and once said, “People cannot be free until there is enough work in this land to give everybody a job.” Ella Baker began her involvement with the NAACP in 1940. She worked as a field secretary and then served as director of branches from 1943 until 1946. Inspired by the historic bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, Baker co-founded the organization In Friendship to raise money to fight against Jim Crow Laws in the deep South. In 1957, Baker moved to Atlanta to help organize Martin Luther King’s new organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She also ran a voter registration campaign called the Crusade for Citizenship.
On February 1, 1960, a group of black college students from North Carolina A&T University refused to leave a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina where they had been denied service. Baker left the SCLC after the Greensboro sit-ins. She wanted to assist the new student activists because she viewed young, emerging activists as a resource and an asset to the movement. Miss Baker organized a meeting at Shaw University for the student leaders of the sit-ins in April 1960. From that meeting, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — SNCC — was born. Adopting the Gandhian theory of nonviolent direct action, SNCC members joined with activists from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to organize the 1961 Freedom Rides. In 1964 SNCC helped create Freedom Summer, an effort to focus national attention on Mississippi’s racism and to register black voters.
Miss Baker, and many of her contemporaries, believed that voting was one key to freedom. Today, that is still the case: if we do not exercise our collective voice, we are unable to influence the policies and laws that impact our lives. To be counted, we must be heard. With Ella Baker’s guidance and encouragement, SNCC became one of the foremost advocates for human rights in the country. Ella Baker once said, “This may only be a dream of mine, but I think it can be made real.” Her influence was reflected in the nickname she acquired: “Fundi,” a Swahili word meaning a person who teaches a craft to the next generation. Baker continued to be a respected and influential leader in the fight for human and civil rights until her death on December 13, 1986, her 83rd birthday.