Assess the role of ella baker in the civil rights movement

Last Updated: 25 May 2023
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Men and their reputations are well known throughout the civil rights movement. McNair-Barnett conducted a study with interviewees from her research in to the movement and asked them who they considered to be the top ten important individual leaders in the movement. 81 individuals were names, 27.2 per cent were women compared to 72.8 per cent of men (McNair Barnett, 1993). It is clear that men were also more focused on in terms of the press and people in the movement. There are many different reasons that could possibly account for this. The women’s liberation movement did not begin in American until the late 1960’s; therefore it was hard for women to have a role in the civil rights movement as an established leader. Also, at the time of the movement, men would have had to lead due to gender bias’ at the time for he movement to have made progress and begin to generate change. As a product of time, men were at he forefront whilst women were more of than not behind the scenes.

Typically, men tended to front organisations such as The Congress of Racial Equality and the Nation Association for The Advancement of Coloured People. Men in these roles often controlled meetings and made decisions over policies and movement strategies. Women however, were not in such high profile roles and tended to stay behind the scenes as found by Sacks study (Barnett, 1997). Women typically organised events, and worked in clerical and secretarial roles in order for the movement organisations to run as smoothly as possible.

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As a result, women have often not been given the recognition that they deserve. Ella Baker in particular has not been recognised for her tireless efforts throughout the civil rights movement. She has been described as “a largely unsung hero of the Civil Rights Freedom Movement who inspired and guided emerging leaders” ( Baker also acquired the nickname ‘Fundi’ from her time as an activist. ‘Fundi’ is a Swahili word meaning a person who teaches a craft to the next generation (REF), giving a slight indication as to how important her role in the civil rights movement was.

Ella Josephine baker was born on December 13th 1903, in Raleigh, North Carolina. She grew up listening to her grandmother’s experiences growing up on slave plantations. Ella Baker attended Shaw University, Raleigh, North Carolina and regularly challenged university policies that she thought were unfair, she graduated as class valedictorian in 1927. After graduating, Baker worked in editorial roles, particularly for the American West Indian News from 1928-1930 and the Negro National News in 1932. Baker had befriended George Schulyer, who founded the Young Negroes Cooperative League together with Baker in 1931, and became its national director (Mueller in Crawford, 1993). This led to her employment with New Deals Works Progress Association bringing people together through collective buying. It was during her time with New Deals Works Progress that Baker was exposed to newer radical ideas surrounding social change. (Ella baker quote in Mueller in Crawford about time in NY)

In 1938 Baker joined the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and stressed the importance of young people and women in the organisation. However, it has been suggested that Baker was against the NAACP’s traditional strategy of appealing to the professional ranks in society to lead the masses (Elliot, 1996). Elliot believes that Ella Bakers philosophy was “power to the people” (Elliot, 1996). Baker believed that people had to help themselves in order to discover solutions to their problems, she believed that “oppressed people, whatever their level of formal education have the ability to understand and interpret the world around them, to see the world for what it is, and move to transform it” ( by 1941, Baker had become an assistant field secretary of the NAACP. Whilst with the NAACP, baker helped to organise voter registration drives, and actively campaigned for school desegregation and was against police brutality issues. In the late 1940’s Baker had become a field secretary for the New York Branch of the NAACP and had become “the NAACP’s most effective organiser” ( Ella Baker in an interview with Gerda Lerner, a historian, described her role in the NAACP; “you would deal with whatever the local problem was and on the basis of the needs of the people you would try to organise them in the NAACP” (Lerner, 1972, p.347).

Baker worked well in the NAACP, hence her reputation. She believed that “you relationships to human beings was more important than your relationship to the amount of money you made” (Cantarow and Omally, p.60). It was perhaps this belief that made her such a central organiser within the NAACP, as she had a very down to earth view of the world and equality, and as a result, was able to work with all people from different walks of life when travelling through the south as a field secretary for the NAACP. Baker left her role as field secretary in 1946 to care for her niece in New York but remained a volunteer, she became its president in 1952 but resigned in 1953 to run for the New York City Council, but it was unsuccessful (Ransby, 2003, p.14).

In 1955, Ella Baker, along with Bayard Rustin and Stanley Levison co founded the organisation ‘In Friendship’ to raise money to fight against Jim Crow laws in the south (Payne, 1989). However, it was not until 1957 when she became involved with another prominent organisation in the movement. Baker moved to Atlanta, to help organise the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King. Baker was the associate director of the SCLC (Elliot, 1996) and was involved with the day to day running of the organisation and the office. Ella Baker later became the SCLC’s Acting Executive Director. The Civil Rights Movement was a largely church based movement and as a result, Baker was never considered a legitimate leader, as she had not descended from clergy or church hierarchy; she was Acting Executive Director until a suitable leader was found. Mueller suggests, “her policy suggestions for greater emphasis on local organising and the inclusion of Women and youth were largely ignored” (Mueller in Crawford, 1993, p.62).

Ella Baker was aware of this discrimination in the SCLC though when she was asked why she decided to leave the SCLC she replied; “in the first place, I had known, number one that there would never be any role for me in a leadership capacity with the SCLC. WhyFirst I’m a woman. Also, I’m not a minister” (Robnett, 1996). Female status in the movement was gained through acts of courage and positions of power were through community work or extraordinary activism, not through church hierarchy, the way men gained leadership was more often than not through church hierarchy in terms of the clergy.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that women weren’t aware of their positions as secondary to the roles of men. Victoria Gray recalls “there are just so few places where historically the black male could have any authority, if you will. That is not an accident, I assure you. Where that was possible the community supported that” (Robnett, 1997, p.41). Gray suggests that women supported men in positions of power, despite that often meaning that women would come secondary to them. Bernice Johnson Reagon claims “as an empowered human being I never experienced being held back” (Robnett, 1997, p.37). Whilst these women appear to be unaware of the gender bias at the time, there were women in the spotlight who were aware of the constraints of both race and gender. Dorothy Height, a well known woman in the movement, said the main downside to being a female leader amongst men, was that it was “sometimes hard for them to realise the importance of women’s rights”(

Martin Luther King Jr acknowledged “women, while capable of leadership, did not and should not exercise this ability by choice” (Robnett, 1996). It was difficult for women to hold positions of power during the movement, as women’s liberation had not yet begun. However, Dorothy Cotton an activist in the movement recalls; “Men were programmed to be chauvinistic, but we allowed it too, women deferred to their husbands” (Robnett, 1997, p.43), indicating that a separation of male and female roles in the movement was a product of the time. The post-war era continued the public and private sphere ideology; men and women had their separate roles in separate aspects of life. It is important to realise that men had found themselves in a position of power after so long of having no access to any form of power and therefore the chance to lead was an opportunity that was too good to turn down. Clyde Franklin believes a reason for this is that “in America, black males have only been ‘men’ for about twenty years” (Ling, YR. p.6).

After the Greensboro Sit-Ins in 1960, where black members of society sat in segregated white areas in Woolworth stores across America, two months in to the sit-ins, they had spread to 54 cities in 9 states ( By July 1960, Woolworth stores had agreed to integrate the lunch counter at the Greensboro store. It was after this that Baker realised people were determined to make a change, and called together 300 students for the South wide Student Leadership Conference on Non-violent Resistance to Segregation, which later changed it’s name to Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. Elliot suggests that students of the SNCC trusted Ella Baker because of instead of dictating policy she guided students to solutions (Elliot, 1996). This could, however, be due to her time spent at The Highlander Folk School. The Highlander Folk School was geared towards teaching African-Americans how to read in order to enable them to progress and to empower black communities to further develop more local leaders. Mueller believed that is was Bakers aim to “help local leaders develop their own leadership potential” (Mueller in Crawford, 1993, p.58).

In Bakers time with the SNCC, she had an active role in coordinating the nationwide freedom rides of 1961, where blacks were to ride busses in to southern states sat in areas of the public busses that had previously been reserved for white passengers (Carson). In 1964, Baker also helped to organise the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The party was not seated with delegation but held an influence over the Democratic Party to elect black leaders in Mississippi, which forced a rule change to allow women and minorities to sit as delegates at the Democratic National Convention (FIND REF). Whilst working with the SNCC Baker also worked o the staff of the Southern Conference Education Fund from 1962-1967, which aimed to bring black ad white people together to work for social justice. In her time on the staff of the SCEF, Baker took part in a speaker tour to reunite black and whites and co-hosted important meetings on the links of civil rights and civil liberties (Ransby, 2003).

Ella Baker was a strong advocate of Participatory Democracy that was popular during the 1960’s. Participatory Democracy had three main aims focused on participation. The first was an appeal for the grass roots involvement of those in society over decisions that control their own lives. The next step is to minimize hierarchy and emphasis on expertise and professionalism as a basis for the election of a leader. The third main emphasis was to call for direct action as an answer to fear, alienation, and intellectual detachments. Mueller notes, “participatory democracy legitimized an active public voice” (Mueller in Crawford, 1993, p.52). Participatory democracy is evident in Bakers style of activism; particularly through the way in which she encouraged members of the SNCC to find solutions to their problems rather than to dictate the solutions to them. Baker believed that “the major job was getting people to understand that they had something in their power that they could use, and it could be used if they understood what was happening and how group actions count counter violence” ( showing how focused she was on the grass roots involvement of people in the movement.

Ella Bakers role in the Civil Rights Movement was essential. Her behind the scenes activism challenged and helped to change the society of America. By Helping to organise voter registration drives she enabled black people of America to have the right to vote in elections, and her role as field secretary of the NAACP helping southern states through the organisation to solve local issues in order to unite a front against national issues. Her co-founding of ‘In Friendship’ also geared towards those in the Jim Crow stricken states in the south where systematic segregation and racism was often stronger than in the northern states. Her organisation of the SNCC was groundbreaking; changing the way people though out solutions to their problems. It was perhaps her role in the SNCC where her strong advocacy for participatory democracy shines through, as she aimed to guide rather than dictate. Shyrlee Dallard sums up the effort of Ella Baker, writing “for Ella Baker, organising was more than a job” (Dallard, 1990, p.6). Baker put her heart and soul in to organising events and organisations geared towards changing American society in to an equal society.

The Ella Baker Center is dedicated to leading in the way that Ella Baker did, to encourage people to work towards professional opportunities in order to better themselves and their local communities through the running of various campaigns. The Heal the Streets Campaign trains people to act against violence in Oakland, Illinois. The center is dedicated towards the following of Ella Baker’s philosophy, ‘Power to The People”.

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Assess the role of ella baker in the civil rights movement. (2019, Apr 02). Retrieved from

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