Published on Saturday, December 13, 2003 by the Miami Herald
Ella J Baker: Remember a Life Well Lived
by Barbara Ransby
Today marks the 100th anniversary of Ella Josephine Baker's birth. Although her name may be unknown to many, this re- markable woman was one of the most influential people in the crusade for racial justice in America.
An untiring voice for the dispossessed, a democrat and an egalitarian in word and deed, Baker was a true American hero.
For more than 50 years, she traveled the breadth of this country organizing, protesting and advocating for social justice. Her main concern was the plight of blacks, whose rights, she argued, were the litmus test for American democracy. But she was also concerned with the cause of labor, the poor, Latinos and women.
Over the course of her life, she worked alongside some of the most well-known civil-rights leaders of the 20th century. They included W.E.B. DuBois, Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King, Jr.
But celebrity did not impress Baker. Instead, she placed emphasis on grass-roots organizing and local leadership. Her own humble style is part of the reason why her contributions and accomplishments are less known than those of many of her male counterparts.
In the 1930s, while living in Harlem, Baker was a leader of the cooperative movement and participated in demonstrations against lynching, colonialism and fascism.
In the 1940s, she blazed a trail through Ku Klux Klan territory, recruiting members for the NAACP and putting her own life at risk in the process.
In the 1950s, she divided her time between Atlanta and New York, struggling against police brutality and school segregation in the North, and for basic civil and human rights in the South. She was the first director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
In the 1960s she was mentor to a new generation of young freedom fighters. Her political protégés included Julian Bond, current leader of the NAACP; educator and author Bob Moses; Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of the musical group Sweet Honey in the Rock; Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund; and Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C. All of these individuals began their political careers in the ranks of an organization that Baker helped found in the spring of 1960, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
SNCC grew out of the 1960 lunch-counter desegregation sit-ins and was instrumental in the 1961 freedom rides that broke the color bar on interstate trains and buses. It was the organizational force behind Freedom Summer in 1964, which shuttled hundreds of Northern college students into the South to work on voter registration and education.
SNCC engaged in bold and daring confrontations with racism. Many of its members were jailed and beaten, and some lost their lives. But they helped change the racial landscape of the nation. Baker was officially an adult advisor to SNCC, but she was much more. She garnered resources, mended wounds (physical and emotional) and offered strategic insights. She also put the inexperienced young organizers in touch with local activists throughout the region who advised, nurtured and supported them.
Her work with SNCC was the most fulfilling phase of Baker's long political life. But after the organization began to unravel in the late 1960s, Baker continued her work on other fronts.
She opposed the war in Vietnam, supported the campaign for Puerto Rican independence and lobbied against South African apartheid. She was a relentless fighter on the side of the oppressed and downtrodden for more than a half century. The large and diverse crowd of notables and unknowns who attended her funeral in 1986 was testimony to this fact.
Baker never thought of herself as old, even as her hair grayed and her once-flawless brown skin relented to the pull of time and gravity.
''Being young is a state of mind,'' she once told a friend, ``and young people are the people who want change.''
Baker wanted to change injustice, and she spent her life doing just that. It kept her young. Her youthful life is one well worth remembering.
Barbara Ransby, author of Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement, won the Joan Kelly Memorial Prize from the Association of American Historians for the best women's history book in 2003.
Copyright 2003 Miami Herald