Diane Nash discusses how her mentor Ella Baker inspired her own work as a civil rights activist in honor of Black History Month.
Black History Month: The Forgotten Ones
When February rolls around, we think only of Valentine’s Day and about our significant others. But February is also Black History Month, a month to reflect on the advancement and growth of African Americans, yet schools don’t mention it. Students go through the whole month without thinking of the leaders who gave them the opportunities that everyone has today. Icons like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, or Rosa Parks typically come up, but people don’t think about Ella Baker, Diane Nash, Harry and Harriette Moore, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Dorothy Height.
Ella Baker was one of the leading figures in the Civil Rights Movement. She organized the Young Negroes Cooperative League and she later went on to become the president of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). It didn’t stop there. At the request of Martin Luther King Jr. Ella Baker joined the Southern Leadership Conference as the Executive Director. As the years went on, her age didn’t hamper her ability to advocate for the cause. She knew that there were others who wanted to change the world so she passed down her knowledge and experiences. She was given the nickname “Fundi”, which means a person who passes down a craft to the next generation.
Ella Baker wasn’t the only one who was forgotten in history. Diane Nash, a member of the legendary Freedom Riders, and she helped found the Selma Voting Rights campaign which helped blacks have a voice in the South. Harry and Harriette Moore, a couple murdered and left behind two children. They were educators who were deeply involved in the NAACP they focused on black and white salaries and segregation and later transitioned to dangerous topics like police brutality and lynchings which eventually led to their murder which was never solved. Fannie Lou Hamer coined the phrase “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired” and was key in organizing the Mississippi Freedom Summer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Last but not least is Dorothy Height who was an advocate for social injustice. In the height of the Civil Rights Movement, she organized “Wednesdays in Mississippi” which allowed white and black women to talk about social issues. She was quoted saying, “I want to be remembered as someone who used herself and anything she could touch to work for justice and freedom…I want to be remembered as one who tried.”
The list doesn’t stop there countless people, who gave up their lives for a better world, are still forgotten today. These individuals and many others courageously risked their lives for something as simple as human dignity and respect. That does not mean that MLK, Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks are not exceptional leaders. It just means that the activists that didn’t get a holiday need to be celebrated not forgotten. Keeping their memory and achievements is as simple as searching up, “civil rights activists who have been forgotten.” Keep their actions alive.
Ella Baker: Community Organizer
Following graduation, Baker moved to New York City. By 1930, she organized the Young Negroes Cooperative League, a group designed to advance the causes of businesses owned by black and colored citizens.
The idea was to combine the buying power of businesses to help create economic stability at the beginning of the Great Depression. This cooperative also stood against white-owned businesses that would frequently try to undersell black-owned companies.
As the Great Depression grew deeper, Baker realized that young African-Americans particularly faced dire economic situations. Not only were they discriminated against, but now they faced horrific conditions of poverty, homelessness, and unrest.
Library of Congress A formal portrait of Ella Baker, circa 1942-1946.
Baker saw the economic hardships as a catalyst for change. As she organized groups for women in New York City, one of her frequent sayings became, “People cannot be free until there is enough work in this land to give everybody a job.”
Helping to run the Young Negroes Cooperative League, and other organizations, for a few years, gave Baker the training she needed for the coming Civil Rights Movement. In 1940, she joined the NAACP.
10 Black Women That Changed History
Ella Baker's name isn't as well-known as MLK or Rosa Parks, but she mentored them and dozens of other civil rights leaders. Baker, who began working with the NAACP in 1940, partnered with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to work alongside MLK. She led the Crusade for Citizenship, a voter registration campaign.
The activist also helped to create SNCC and other civil rights organizations. She is often referred to as "Fundi," a "Swahili word meaning a person who teaches a craft to the next generation," according to the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.
Her leadership transformed the world.
"You didn't see me on television you didn't see news stories about me," she said of the 1960's. "The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders."
More of Ella Baker's amazing story is told in "FUNDI: The Story of Ella Baker."
Most people are familiar with Rosa Parks and her refusal to give up her bus seat to a white patron. It's considered the act that started the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Yet, Parks wasn't the first Black woman to disobey the ridiculous law.
In March 1955, then 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to relinquish her bus seat. She was charged with disturbing the peace, assaulting a police officer, and violating segregation laws. Parks, who was working as a secretary for the local NAACP, began searching for ways to use Colvin's case to galvanize the upcoming boycott.
She was never catapulted to prominence, like Parks, because the NAACP soon discovered she was pregnant and the father of her unborn child was married to another woman. Colvin isn't bitter, though.
She told the New York Times in 2009 that the Civil Rights Movement is bigger than one person. "Maybe by telling my story — something I was afraid to do for a long time — kids will have a better understanding about what the Civil Rights Movement was about," she said.
Read more about Claudette Colvin's incredible sacrifice in "Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice."
Before Hillary Clinton, there was the unbought and unbossed Shirley Chisholm. Chisholm began her career in politics at Brooklyn College, after her professor told her she had a "quick mind and debating skills."
The first-generation American took those words and ran with them. In 1968, Chisholm became the first African-American Congresswoman, representing Brooklyn in the House of Representatives. She followed this historic act with another one: in 1972, she became the first Black woman to run for president, claiming that no other candidate cared as much about issues plaguing the Black community.
Her run was called the "Chisholm Trail," according to National Women's History Museum. Ultimately, she didn't earn the Democratic nomination, but she earned 151 delegate votes at the convention.
Chisholm — referred to as the "people's politician" — served in Congress for 14 years. During that time, she introduced over 50 pieces of legislation, co-founded the National Women's Political Caucus, and served on the Committee on Education and Labor. President Bill Clinton attempted to appoint her as the U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica, but she declined. Though Chisholm died in 2005, her political legacy continues to inspire women, including the one who may just become America's first female president.
Learn about Shirley Chisholm's historic presidential run in the PBS documentary "Chisholm '72."
Diane Nash was, and continues to be, a warrior for freedom. In 1959, she transferred from Howard University in Washington, D.C. to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. It was there she learned the extent of segregation and decided to battle against it.
By 1961, Nash became a full-fledged activist. She participated in multiple sit-ins, which led to stints in jail. At one point, she was sentenced to two years in prison for "teaching nonviolent tactics to children in Jackson, Mississippi." She, too, was a prominent member of SNCC, and coordinated the Freedom Rides to Southern states entrenched in segregation.
Nash is still fighting for freedom. Years ago, she refused to attend the commemoration march to Selma because George W. Bush was present.
"I refused to march because George Bush marched,” Nash told journalist Roland Martin on TV One's News One Now. "I think the Selma movement was about non-violence and peace and democracy. And George Bush stands for just the opposite: For violence and war and stolen elections, and his administration … had people tortured."
Ida B. Wells
You owe a lot to Ida B. Wells-Barnett if you are a journalist reporting on racism, sexism, and other social issues. She's a titan who laid the blueprint for journalists to do important work around these issues.
Wells-Barnett deserves far more credit than she receives. She fought for voting rights for women, reported on lynching, and clashed with white feminists on the importance of intersectionality.
In 1889, Wells-Barnett left the education field to pursue writing. She became part-owner of the "Free Speech and Headlight," an African-American newspaper. There, she reported on the brutality of lynching and advocated for Black women. After leaving Memphis for Chicago, she continued her crusade by publishing "Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases," an amazing book that should be taught in every history class.
Wells-Barnett was also a passionate advocate for women's rights. She participated in the 1913 suffrage march and was also a founding member of the NAACP.
Her life's work will live on forever.
PBS tells Ida B. Wells' story in the documentary, "Ida B. Wells: A Passionate for Justice."
Elaine Brown served as the chairwoman of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense from 1974 to 1977. She took over the reigns of the organization after Kathleen Cleaver first held the leadership position.
Brown also served as editor of the Black Panther Party's newspaper, "The Black Panther." She also ran for Oakland City Council, but didn't win the seat. Her political ambitions didn't end there. In 2007, Brown ran as the Green Party's candidate for the presidency.
To learn more about Elaine Brown, read "A Taste of Power: A Black Woman's Story"
Dorothy Height is a Civil Rights Movement legend. Referred to as the "godmother" of the Civil Rights Movement, Height served as chair and president emerita of the National Council of Negro Women. She also served as the Director of the YWCA School for Professional Workers, and organized around civil rights issues.
Alongside fellow NCNW member, Height organized Wednesdays in Mississippi, workshops that brought Black and white women together during the height of the Civil Rights Movement to discuss racial issues.
She, alongside Gloria Steinem and Shirley Chisholm, co-founded the National Women's Political Caucus and worked to put more women in political office.
As a thank you for her service, President Obama awarded Height the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, and called her "the godmother of the civil rights movement and a hero to so many Americans."
Ella Baker – ‘The Mother of the Civil Rights Movement’
After graduating from Shaw University, Ella Baker moved to New York City and began her career as a grassroots organizer. Joining the NAACP in 1940, the Virginia native assisted in developing some of the brightest minds in the Civil Rights Movement.
Baker charged people like Rosa Parks to stand up and speak out. Through her organizing efforts, she assisted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with the creation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was helping to build the Civil Rights Movement. After a string of sit-ins in the 1960s, she joined a group of students who would go on to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Baker ignited the fight in a generation of young Americans who would go on to risk their own freedom for the advancement and equality of all black people.
Hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr.— with additional commentary from Farrah Griffin of Columbia University, Diane Nash, and Rep. John Lewis — we sing the highest praises to the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement. This freedom fighter’s tireless commitment to liberty paved the way for the freedoms we have today.
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Ella Josephine Baker was born on December 13, 1903, in Norfolk, Virginia,  to Georgiana (called Anna) and Blake Baker, and first raised there. She was the second of three surviving children, bracketed by her older brother Blake Curtis and younger sister Maggie.  Her father worked on a steamship line that sailed out of Norfolk, and so was often away. Her mother took in boarders to earn extra money. In 1910, Norfolk had a race riot in which whites attacked black workers from the shipyard. Her mother decided to take the family back to North Carolina while their father continued to work for the steamship company. Ella was seven when they returned to her mother's rural hometown near Littleton, North Carolina. 
As a child, Baker grew up with little influence.  Her grandfather Mitchell had died, and her father's parents lived a day's ride away.  She often listened to her grandmother, Josephine Elizabeth "Bet" Ross, tell stories about slavery and leaving the South to escape its oppressive society.  At an early age, Baker gained a sense of social injustice, as she listened to her grandmother's horror stories of life as an enslaved person. Her grandmother was beaten and whipped for refusing to marry an enslaved man her owner chose,  and told Ella other stories of life as an African-American woman during this period. Giving her granddaughter context to the African-American experience helped Baker understand the injustices black people still faced. 
Ella attended Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, and graduated with valedictorian honors.  Decades later, she returned to Shaw to help found SNCC. 
First efforts (1930-1937) Edit
Baker worked as editorial assistant at the Negro National News. In 1930, George Schuyler, a black journalist and anarchist (and later an arch-conservative), founded the Young Negroes Cooperative League (YNCL). It sought to develop black economic power through collective networks. They conducted "conferences and trainings in the 1930s in their attempt to create a small, interlocking system of cooperative economic societies throughout the US" for black economic development.  Having befriended Schuyler, Baker joined his group in 1931 and soon became its national director.  
Baker also worked for the Worker's Education Project of the Works Progress Administration, established under President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. Baker taught courses in consumer education, labor history, and African history. She immersed herself in the cultural and political milieu of Harlem in the 1930s, protesting Italy's invasion of Ethiopia and supporting the campaign to free the Scottsboro defendants in Alabama. She also founded the Negro History Club at the Harlem Library and regularly attended lectures and meetings at the YWCA. 
During this time, Baker lived with and married her college sweetheart, T. J. (Bob) Roberts. They divorced in 1958. Baker rarely discussed her private life or marital status. According to fellow activist Bernice Johnson Reagon, many women in the Civil Rights Movement followed Baker's example, adopting a practice of dissemblance about their private lives that allowed them to be accepted as individuals in the movement. 
Baker befriended John Henrik Clarke, a future scholar and activist Pauli Murray, a future writer and civil rights lawyer and others who became lifelong friends.  The Harlem Renaissance influenced her thoughts and teachings. She advocated widespread, local action as a means of social change. Her emphasis on a grassroots approach to the struggle for equal rights influenced the growth and success of the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century. 
NAACP (1938–1953) Edit
In 1938 Baker began her long association with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), then based in New York City. In December 1940 she started work there as a secretary. She traveled widely for the organization, especially in the South, recruiting members, raising money, and organizing local chapters. She was named director of branches in 1943,  and became the NAACP's highest-ranking woman. An outspoken woman, Baker believed in egalitarian ideals. She pushed the NAACP to decentralize its leadership structure and to aid its membership in more activist campaigns at the local level. 
Baker believed that the strength of an organization grew from the bottom up, not the top down. She believed that the branches' work was the NAACP's lifeblood. Baker despised elitism and placed her confidence in many. She believed that the bedrock of any social change organization is not its leaders' eloquence or credentials, but the commitment and hard work of the rank and file membership and their willingness and ability to engage in discussion, debate, and decision-making.  She especially stressed the importance of young people and women in the organization. 
While traveling throughout the South on the NAACP's behalf, Baker met hundreds of black people, establishing lasting relationships with them. She slept in their homes, ate at their tables, spoke in their churches, and earned their trust. She wrote thank-you notes and expressed her gratitude to the people she met. This personalized approach was one important aspect of Baker's effectiveness in recruiting more NAACP members.  She formed a network of people in the South who would be important in the continued fight for civil rights. Whereas some northern organizers tended to talk down to rural southerners, Baker's ability to treat everyone with respect helped her in recruiting. Baker fought to make the NAACP more democratic. She tried to find a balance between voicing her concerns and maintaining a unified front. 
Between 1944 and 1946, Baker directed leadership conferences in several major cities, such as Chicago and Atlanta. She got top officials to deliver lectures, offer welcoming remarks, and conduct workshops. 
In 1946, Baker took in her niece Jackie, whose mother was unable to care for her. Due to her new responsibilities, Baker left her full-time position with the NAACP and began to serve as a volunteer. She soon joined the NAACP's New York branch to work on local school desegregation and police brutality issues. She became its president in 1952.  In this role, she supervised the field secretaries and coordinated the national office's work with local groups.  Baker's top priority was to lessen the organization's bureaucracy and give women more power in the organization this included reducing Walter Francis White's dominating role as executive secretary. [ citation needed ]
Baker believed the program should be primarily channeled not through White and the national office, but through the people in the field. She lobbied to reduce the rigid hierarchy, place more power in the hands of capable local leaders, and give local branches greater responsibility and autonomy.  In 1953 she resigned from the presidency to run for the New York City Council on the Liberal Party ticket, but was unsuccessful. 
Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1957–1960) Edit
In January 1957, Baker went to Atlanta to attend a conference aimed at developing a new regional organization to build on the success of the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama. After a second conference in February, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was formed. This was initially planned as a loosely structured coalition of church-based leaders who were engaged in civil rights struggles across the South.  The group wanted to emphasize the use of nonviolent actions to bring about social progress and racial justice for southern blacks. They intended to rely on the existing black churches, at the heart of their communities, as a base of its support. Its strength would be built on the political activities of local church affiliates. The SCLC leaders envisioned themselves as the political arm of the black church. 
The SCLC first appeared publicly as an organization at the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom. Baker was one of three major organizers of this large-scale event. She demonstrated her ability to straddle organizational lines, ignoring and minimizing rivalries and battles.  The conference's first project was the 1958 Crusade for Citizenship, a voter registration campaign to increase the number of registered African-American voters for the 1958 and 1960 elections. Baker was hired as Associate Director, the first staff person for the SCLC. Reverend John Tilley became the first Executive Director. Baker worked closely with southern civil rights activists in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, and gained respect for her organizing abilities. She helped initiate voter registration campaigns and identify other local grievances. Their strategy included education, sermons in churches, and efforts to establish grassroots centers to stress the importance of the vote. They also planned to rely on the Civil Rights Act of 1957 to protect local voters.  While the project did not achieve its immediate goals, it laid the groundwork for strengthening local activist centers to build a mass movement for the vote across the South.  After John Tilley resigned as director of the SCLC, Baker lived and worked in Atlanta for two and a half years as interim executive director until Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker started in the role in April 1960. 
Baker's job with the SCLC was more frustrating than fruitful. She was unsettled politically, physically, and emotionally. She had no solid allies in the office.  Historian Thomas F. Jackson notes that Baker criticized the organization for "programmatic sluggishness and King's distance from the people. King was a better orator than democratic crusader[, she] concluded." 
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (1960–1966) Edit
That same year, 1960, on the heels of regional desegregation sit-ins led by black college students, Baker persuaded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to invite southern university students to the Southwide Youth Leadership Conference at Shaw University on Easter weekend. This was a gathering of sit-in leaders to meet, assess their struggles, and explore the possibilities for future actions.  At this meeting, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced "snick") was formed. 
Baker saw the potential for a special type of leadership by the young sit-in leaders, who were not yet prominent in the movement. She believed they could revitalize the Black Freedom Movement and take it in a new direction. Baker wanted to bring the sit-in participants together in a way that would sustain the momentum of their actions, teach them the skills necessary, provide the resources that were needed, and also help them to coalesce into a more militant and democratic force.  To this end she worked to keep the students independent of the older, church-based leadership. In her address at Shaw, she warned the activists to be wary of "leader-centered orientation." Julian Bond later described the speech as "an eye opener" and probably the best of the conference. "She didn't say, 'Don't let Martin Luther King tell you what to do,'" Bond remembers, "but you got the real feeling that that's what she meant." 
SNCC became the most active organization in the deeply oppressed Mississippi Delta. It was relatively open to women.  Following the conference at Shaw, Baker resigned from the SCLC and began a long and close relationship with SNCC.  Along with Howard Zinn, Baker was one of SNCC's highly revered adult advisors, and she was known as the "Godmother of SNCC." 
In 1961 Baker persuaded the SNCC to form two wings: one wing for direct action and the second wing for voter registration. With Baker's help SNCC, along with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), coordinated the region-wide Freedom Rides of 1961. They also expanded their grassroots movement among black sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and others throughout the South. Ella Baker insisted that "strong people don't need strong leaders," and criticized the notion of a single charismatic leader of movements for social change. In keeping the idea of "participatory democracy", Baker wanted each person to get involved.  She also argued that "people under the heel," the most oppressed members of any community, "had to be the ones to decide what action they were going to take to get (out) from under their oppression". 
She was a teacher and mentor to the young people of SNCC, influencing such important future leaders as Julian Bond, Diane Nash, Stokely Carmichael, Curtis Muhammad, Bob Moses, and Bernice Johnson Reagon. Through SNCC, Baker's ideas of group-centered leadership and the need for radical democratic social change spread throughout the student movements of the 1960s. For instance, the Students for a Democratic Society, the major antiwar group of the day, promoted participatory democracy. These ideas also influenced a wide range of radical and progressive groups that would form in the 1960s and 1970s. 
In 1964 Baker helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) as an alternative to the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party. She worked as the coordinator of the Washington office of the MFDP and accompanied a delegation of the MFDP to the 1964 National Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The group wanted to challenge the national party to affirm the rights of African Americans to participate in party elections in the South, where they were still largely disenfranchised. When MFDP delegates challenged the pro-segregationist, all-white official delegation, a major conflict ensued. The MFDP delegation was not seated, but their influence on the Democratic Party later helped to elect many black leaders in Mississippi. They forced a rule change to allow women and minorities to sit as delegates at the Democratic National Convention. 
The 1964 schism with the national Democratic Party led SNCC toward the "black power" position. Baker was less involved with SNCC during this period, but her withdrawal was due more to her declining health than to ideological differences. According to her biographer Barbara Ransby, Baker believed that black power was a relief from the "stale and unmoving demands and language of the more mainstream civil rights groups at the time."  She also accepted the turn towards armed self-defense that SNCC made in the course of its development. Her friend and biographer Joanne Grant wrote that "Baker, who always said that she would never be able to turn the other cheek, turned a blind eye to the prevalence of weapons. While she herself would rely on her fists … she had no qualms about target practice." 
Southern Conference Education Fund (1962–1967) Edit
From 1962 to 1967, Baker worked on the staff of the Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF). Its goal was to help black and white people work together for social justice the interracial desegregation and human rights group was based in the South.  SCEF raised funds for black activists, lobbied for implementation of President John F. Kennedy's civil rights proposals, and tried to educate southern whites about the evils of racism.  Federal civil rights legislation was passed by Congress and signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 and 1965, but implementation took years.
In SCEF, Baker worked closely with her friend Anne Braden, a white longtime anti-racist activist. Braden had been accused in the 1950s of being a communist by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Baker believed that socialism was a humane alternative to capitalism, but had mixed feelings about communism. She became a staunch defender of Braden and her husband Carl she encouraged SNCC to reject red-baiting as divisive and unfair. During the 1960s, Baker participated in a speaking tour and co-hosted several meetings on the importance of linking civil rights and civil liberties. 
Final efforts (1968-1986) Edit
In 1967 Baker returned to New York City, where she continued her activism. She later collaborated with Arthur Kinoy and others to form the Mass Party Organizing Committee, a socialist organization. [ citation needed ] In 1972 she traveled the country in support of the "Free Angela" campaign, demanding the release of activist and writer Angela Davis, who had been arrested in California as a communist. Davis was acquitted after representing herself in court. [ citation needed ]
Baker also supported the Puerto Rican independence movement and spoke out against apartheid in South Africa. She allied with a number of women's groups, including the Third World Women's Alliance and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. She remained an activist until her death on December 13, 1986, her 83rd birthday. 
In the 1960s, the idea of "participatory democracy" became popular among political activists, including those in the Civil Rights Movement. It took the traditional appeal of democracy and added direct citizen participation. 
The new movement had three primary emphases:
- An appeal for grassroots involvement of people throughout society, while making their own decisions
- The minimization of (bureaucratic) hierarchy and the associated emphasis on expertise and professionalism as a basis for leadership
- A call for direct action as an answer to fear, isolation, and intellectual detachment 
You didn't see me on television, you didn't see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don't need strong leaders. 
According to activist Mumia Abu-Jamal, Baker advocated a more collectivist model of leadership over the "prevailing messianic style of the period."  She was largely arguing against the structuring of the civil rights movement by the organization model of the black church. The black church then had largely female membership and male leadership. Baker questioned not only the gendered hierarchy of the civil rights movement but also that of the Black church. 
Baker, King, and other SCLC members were reported to have differences in opinion and philosophy during the 1950s and 1960s. She was older than many of the young ministers she worked with, which added to their tensions. She once said the "movement made Martin, and not Martin the movement". When she gave a speech urging activists to take control of the movement themselves, rather than rely on a leader with "heavy feet of clay", it was widely interpreted as a denunciation of King. 
Baker's philosophy was "power to the people."  If members worked together, she believed that a group's force could make significant changes. 
Of course there are waaaaaaay more than 6 Black girls left out of your history books, but this month, we wanted to highlight a few who played a part in fighting for civil rights. Which ones have you heard of before? Which ones are new to you?
Septima Poinsette Clark
A teacher turned civil rights activist, Septima not only helped Thurgood Marshall prep for a 1945 case working to get equal pay for Black and white teachers, but she also helped set up 800+ citizen schools that helped African Americans register to vote. These schools taught reading, writing, and math because back then, Black people had to pass certain literacy tests in order to even register.
The grandaughter of a former slave, Ella Josephine Baker, was a civil rights activist for most of her life. In 1940, she became a field secretary for the NAACP and helped with fundraising and recruitment in 1946, she became the national director of the NAACP. In this role, she worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which helped train younger civil rights activists on college campuses for things like sit-ins and freedom rides. Ella also joined the New York Urban League and helped organize the Young Negroes Cooperative League of NYC, which helped provide better access to goods and services for Blacks.
Born on Chi Town’s south side, Diane Nash first got involved in the Civil Rights Movement when she was a student at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. She became chairperson of the student sit-in movement in Nashville and also helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. On top of all that, Diane was also a Freedom Rider and helped plan the rides from Birmingham, Alabama to Jackson, Mississippi, which were held during the summer of 1961. Hear her story in her own words here.
The Edmonson Sisters
Mary and Emily Edmonson were the daughters of a free black man in Virginia and an enslaved woman in Maryland. When Mary was only 15 or 16 and Emily was just 13 years old, they attempted to escape slavery with four of their brothers and dozens of other slaves by hitching a ride on The Pearl, a ship docked in Washington, DC. Unfortunately, they were caught en route to New Jersey — and freedom — and were thrown in jail in Alexandria, VA. They experienced being sold into prostitution and then back into domestic work until they were finally freed in November of 1848. Mary died shortly after, but Emily went on to fight for civil rights by working to end slavery with the abolitionist movement.
Pauli Murray worked to end segregation at the University of North Carolina way back in 1938 (it wasn’t integrated until 1951, however) and also worked to integrate public transportation systems. She was even arrested for refusing to sit at the back of the bus in 1940 in Virginia. The next year, she became a student at Howard University to study civil rights law. Using nonviolence and civil disobedience, she continued to fight for civil rights and formed CORE (Congress of Racial Equality).
Photo: AP/Douglas Martin
At just 15 years old, Dorothy was one of the first Black students to enter Charlotte, North Carolina’s Harry Harding High School in 1957. Walking to school, attending classes, and walking home from school proved very scary and difficult — she was spit on, had garbage and rocks thrown at her, was called many racist names, and was ignored by teachers — but she still held her head high and went to school every day. After four days, her parents pulled her out of Harding due to safety reasons, and moved to Philadelphia, where she attended an already-integrated school.
Diane Nash on Ella Baker, a Black History Legend - HISTORY
New York City - April 24, 1968
Ella Baker was a master strategist and visionary in the civil rights movement. She was a guiding force for prominent movement leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokely Carmichael, and she fueled the work of several leading organizations in the freedom movement. Baker was regarded as a powerful and inspiring figure, but she consciously avoided the limelight. She believed that local African Americans could best lead themselves in their efforts to overturn Jim Crow segregation, rather than relying on charismatic preachers or outside experts. One activist praised Baker as "the mortar between the bricks," holding together the often unsettled foundations of the American civil rights struggle. 1
Ella Josephine Baker was born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1903 and raised in Littleton, North Carolina. She was the granddaughter of slaves, one of three children born into an extended family of modest means and strong social ideals. Her family valued faith, hard work, education and duty to the community. Baker biographer Barbara Ransby says the family belonged to a particular class "who saw themselves as representatives of the race to the white world and as role models for those less fortunate within the black community." 2 Baker's father was railroad dining-car waiter. Her mother had been trained as a teacher. She managed the household, was active in church and women's groups, and groomed her children to be pious and respectable citizens. The family was hardly well-to-do, but they had much compared to the desperate poverty endured by so many other African Americans, and they believed much was expected of them in return. The drive to serve her people powered Ella Baker's life.
After attending the high school boarding program at all-black Shaw University in Raleigh, Baker got her B.A. in sociology from Shaw. She showed an early interest in activism, leading campus protests against strict social rules such as a ban on silk stockings and the obligation to sing spirituals to visiting guests. After graduating in 1927, Baker moved to Harlem to live with a cousin and look for work. Although the Great Depression made jobs scarce, Baker thrived intellectually in the political and cultural ferment of the Harlem Renaissance. She helped organize The Young Negroes Cooperative League, a coalition of local cooperatives and buying clubs that banded together to increase their economic power. She was also involved in the federal Workers Education Project, the Harlem YWCA, the Women's Day Workers and Industrial Leagues, and other left-wing and pro-union organizations. Baker had many friends who were socialists and communists. She admired their principles and some of their organizing methods, but she never joined their parties.
In 1935, Baker went undercover to report on the dismal conditions of itinerant black domestic workers in New York. She posed as a job seeker among the black women who waited each morning on designated Bronx street corners for white women to hire them for a day of low-paid labor. The women workers were routinely approached by white men wanting to pay for sex. Baker co-authored an expose titled "The Bronx Slave Market" which appeared in the NAACP's magazine, Crisis.
In 1940, Baker got a job working for the NAACP as a field organizer and later as a director of the organization's branches. For much of the 1940s, she travelled the South building membership and recruiting local leaders. Baker often spent a half of each year on the road. Historian Charles M. Payne says Baker's vast travels for the NAACP were a kind of "practicum" in grassroots social change. 3 Early on, Baker recognized the dangers inherent in having well-educated outsiders arrive in local communities to organize. "Such a person gets to the point of believing that he is the movement," she said. "Such people get so involved with playing the game of being important that they exhaust themselves and their time and they don't do the work of actually organizing." 4 Over time, Baker began to chafe at the NAACP's bureaucracy and its egocentric national leader, Walter White. She left the national organization in 1946 to care for a young niece, but eventually took the helm of the New York City NAACP branch.
As the 1950s civil rights movement gathered steam in the South, Baker joined with New York activists Stanley Levison and Bayard Rustin to raise money in support of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Montgomery Improvement Association in Alabama, and the group's city bus boycott. In 1957, Rustin and Baker travelled south to help the young King create a new organization that would coordinate protest activities across the region, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Though Baker had misgivings about King's top-down leadership style, she signed on as the provisional director of the SCLC's voter rights campaign. With her years of ground-level organizing across the South, Baker had a wealth of local networks and connections to help spread the SCLC message.
After more than two years, Baker left the SCLC because she felt it had become excessively centered on King's persona and authority. Baker yearned for a genuinely grassroots, democratic way to make change. "It was the opportunity to dig in and work shoulder to shoulder with local activists that most appealed to Baker," Ransby writes. "Local people would be there long after she had gone. In the final analysis, [she felt] the major political decisions had to be theirs." 5
In 1960, a wave of student-led lunch counter sit-ins offered new promise. Baker organized a youth conference at Shaw University that drew hundreds of young activists and established leaders, including King. Baker encouraged the young people to be their own leaders rather than get absorbed in existing organizations. At the end of the weekend, the conference goers created a new group, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). It brought together a new generation of organizers, including Stokely Carmichael, Bob Moses, Diane Nash, Julian Bond, and John Lewis. At 57 years old, Baker was "the godmother of SNCC," urging the group to move deep into the rural South to recruit and support local leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer of Ruleville, Mississippi. Baker's method, with the SNCC cadre and local southern communities, was to create "conditions of possibility for others to find their voices and develop leadership." 6 With Baker's help, the Mississippi civil rights movement would become one of the most successful chapters of the freedom story in the South.
Ella Baker stayed involved in progressive politics and collective action well into her later years. But for a woman of such historical significance, Baker took pains to obscure her contributions. She remained true to her self-effacing style, leaving relatively few personal records or intimate interviews for historians and biographers to work with. She generally did not talk about her private life, even with colleagues. Few of her fellow activists knew about her 20-year marriage to a hometown boyfriend that ended in divorce in late 1958. She'd kept her maiden name and was universally referred to as Miss Ella Baker. And although Baker had a reputation as a powerful orator, she "did not give many formal speeches before large audiences that were recorded by the media or published in manuscript form." 7 Baker died on her 83rd birthday in her Harlem apartment. Her memorial service was attended by Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Julian Bond and others who considered themselves her movement "children." 8
This speech was recorded at New York's Roosevelt Hotel at a dinner honoring Ella Baker. The event was sponsored by the Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF). SCEF was an interracial civil rights group. Baker had worked with the organization from the late 1950s. It was headed by two of her closest friends, Anne and Carl Braden, who were white. The Bradens were journalists and radical activists from Louisville, Kentucky who challenged racial oppression in their hometown and across the South. In 1954, the Bradens purchased a home on behalf of a black couple in a segregated white suburb of Louisville. Angry whites burned a cross on the lawn and finally bombed the house when the black occupants were away. Anne Braden was present at the testimonial dinner in New York. Baker mentions her, and also refers to the recently released report of the President's Commission on Civil Disorders. The commission had been appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to study the causes of rioting in African American urban neighborhoods in 1967.
The tribute dinner took place three weeks after King's assassination in Memphis. Brown attended the dinner, having been recently released from a Louisiana prison on a weapons charge. Carmichael was there, too, flanked by bodyguards because of the increasing controversy caused by his black power rhetoric. Historian Howard Zinn introduced Ella Baker as "one of the most consequential and yet one of the least honored people in America." Zinn continued: "She was always doing the nitty-gritty, down-in-the-earth work that other people were not doing. While all sorts of rhetoric was going on, all kinds of grandstanding was going on, that's what she was doing." 9
1 . Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement, A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 373.
2 . Ibid, 15.
3 . Charles M. Payne, I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1935), 85.
4 . Payne, 93.
5 . Ransby, 228.
6 . Marilyn Bordwell Delaure, "Planting Seeds of Change: Ella Baker's Radical Rhetoric," Women's Studies in Communication, 2008, 1.
7 . Ibid.
8 . Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., "The Spirit of Ella Baker Lives On," Washington Afro-American, January 27, 1987.
9 . Howard Zinn, introductory remarks, "Salute To Ella Baker," Pacifica Radio Archives, BB3142.
The Final Call
Mrs. Hamer participated in the historic Selma march, as did Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leader Stokely Carmichael, and other companions of Dr. King including Ella Baker and Floyd McKissick. They were however all written out of the Selma film. Also absent, was any mention of 1965 activists who made up the Lowndes County Alabama Black Panther (political) Party.
After two years of voting rights activism— activism which led to several arrests and one of the most brutal jailhouse beatings of any Civil Rights leader—Mrs. Hamer and others formed the mostly Black, Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party which challenged the all-White Democratic delegation for seats at the August 1964 convention.
President Johnson, afraid that any concession to the Mississippi Blacks would provoke a rebellion from the delegates from all the segregated Southern states, was adamant in his opposition to the Freedom Democrats. He ordered Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey—his first choice as his Vice Presidential running mate— and other prominent liberals to meet with Mrs. Hamer’s delegation and silence their protest
White Mississippi party members, the Freedom Democrats were offered two non-voting seats. The Freedom party refused the offer, and when Mrs. Hamer took their plight to the court of public opinion, testifying before the credentials committee—an event that was broadcast live on network television—Mr. Johnson hastily convened a press conference at the same time, to draw press coverage from Mrs. Hamer’s compelling story.
Mr. Carmichael, who one year after the Selma events popularized the phrase “Black Power,” was an important, charismatic leader of SNCC. He was a major organizer of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer campaign, and was a companion of Dr. King, along with those who were depicted in the film and he was most certainly on the Edmund Pettus Bridge with Dr. King and others on March 9. Mr. Carmichael later changed his name to Kwame Ture.
“The politics of the film, the intent of the politics of the film were clear in the erasure of Stokely Carmichael, total erasure. The diminished capacity that is the role of Diane Nash and other women, the anti-SNCC perspective was just so clear,” Dr. Jared Ball, Associate Professor of Communications at Morgan State University told The Final Call. “John Lewis is a hero (in the movie), not just because of what he did but because he walked away from SNCC.”
The film, very skillfully diminishes the role of young Black militants who increasingly began to influence Dr. King in and after the events at Selma, in favor of the need for the movement to capitalize on a sense of White conscience and guilt, according to Dr. Ball.
Floyd McKissick was a North Carolina attorney who took over the leadership of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) a vital group in the Civil Rights leadership, in January 1965, who was also absent from the film Selma, likely because he turned CORE 180 degrees from its more accommodationist posture it had followed under leader James Farmer.
Ella Baker’s five decades long career in the Civil Rights movement found her working alongside the most famous leaders of the 20th Century, including Dr. King, A. Philip Randolph, Thurgood Marshall, Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, and she was a mentor to emerging activists Diane Nash (who was portrayed in “Selma”), Mr. Carmichael, Rosa Parks, and Bob Moses, who were not.
Mrs. Baker, who championed the phrase “participatory democracy,” was called “One of the most important African American leaders of the 20th Century, and perhaps the most influential woman in the Civil Rights Movement,” by Barbara Ransby in her book Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement.
The Black Panther Party of Lowndes County was organized in 1965 in the county which was 80 percent Black, with only two Black registered voters, to oppose the conventional Democrats. The largely illiterate population of Lowndes County was acquainted with the political parties by their symbols, a rooster for the White Democrats and a panther—likely taken from Prairie View A & M University or another HBCU team mascot—as the symbol for the Black candidates.
A Leader Is Born
The Chicago native’s political awakening came in 1959 when she was a college student at Fisk University in Nashville. “I wanted to come South to see what it was really like,” Nash told TIME in 1961. Sure enough, what she saw was eye-opening: She couldn’t even get takeout at certain restaurants, and couldn’t go to the nearby public library.
“Very often people think of segregation before the civil rights movement as [meaning] you couldn&rsquot go into restaurants and blacks had to ride at the backs of buses, but it was much more than that,” she says now. “There were daily insults. A white person could pass you and call you anything, and if you dared retaliate or say anything, you could be beaten or arrested or killed. I just felt outraged. When I was trying to learn new things, broaden my horizons, I found segregation just the opposite: limiting, constricting, confining, insulting. Every time I obeyed a segregation rule, I felt like I was agreeing that I was too inferior to use this facility or go to a front door.”
She found James Lawson‘s workshops on campus, in which he shared non-violent movement techniques he learned from Gandhi in India. Soon enough, Nash became chairperson of the Student Central Committee, which planned the 1960s sit-ins that led to Nashville becoming the first Southern city to desegregate lunch counters and public facilities. She then went on to be a co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Congressman John Lewis, who, back then, was a seminary student nearby and also a member of the Student Central Committee at the time, described her as “the one person who made more of an impact than anyone else on our meetings that fall” in his 1998 memoir Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement.
Martin Luther King Jr. described her in 1962 as the &ldquodriving spirit in the nonviolent assault on segregation at lunch counters.” After the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed, Nash received the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s highest honor, the Rosa Parks Freedom Award. She had helped pitch the idea of the famous 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery to raise awareness about voting rights and was crucial in getting medics there when the marchers were attacked with clubs and tear gas. After Freedom Riders were attacked in Alabama on May 14, 1961, she was one of the key people who decided that the Freedom Rides must continue and who organized transportation for members of the Nashville Student Central Committee to go Alabama to finish the journey that those Freedom Riders started. She wanted to prove “you can&rsquot stop a nonviolent campaign by inflicting violence.”
But despite the effectiveness of her work, Nash’s gender often got in the way of recognition.
As Lewis writes in his memoir, many women in the civil rights movement did not become as famous as their male peers because of the “chauvinism” of the men in the movement, which was “expressed pretty succinctly” when Stokely Carmichael infamously said that the only positions for women in the movement were “prone.” Lewis writes that he admired the way Nash stayed focused on the mission &mdash “dead serious about what we were doing each week, very calm, very deliberate, always straightforward and sincere” &mdash even as some men in the movement were captivated by her beauty, himself included. (“They waited years later to tell me that!” Nash jokes.)
“There were men, who, whenever there was a press conference, were right there,” she says, “while Ella Baker would be making sure everyone who came for a demonstration had a place to stay.”