Ella Baker and the Process of Social Change

I was immensely privileged as a young activist in my 20’s to meet Ella Baker and work together with her in the same organization, the Mass Party Organizing Committee. This was in the late ’70s and early ’80s. At the time I knew that she was a widely-respected veteran of the civil rights/black freedom movement, and I was always impressed with her contributions to our discussions, her dignity and her clarity. I was very appreciative of her willingness to take the time to talk with young people like me, including at least one trip I remember making to her apartment in Harlem at a time when her health was clearly slipping.

But I never fully appreciated Ms. Baker’s historic contributions and the continuing relevance of her life’s work until I read the excellent book by Barbara Ransby, “Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement.” Ransby’s biography should be required reading for all who want to transform U.S. society into a society based upon justice, equality and human rights.

Ella Baker played a major role in building the NAACP in the ’40s, particularly in the South, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in the late ’50s’ and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the ’60s. But as Ransby explains, her leadership was of a different kind than that of many of her colleagues, particularly within the NAACP and the SCLC. Those colleagues, almost all men, didn’t appreciate what Ms. Baker called “group-centered leadership,” preferring instead the “charismatic individual” model. The relationship of Martin Luther King, Jr. to SCLC is a prime example.

As Ransby explains, “Baker’s feeling was that even though ‘I had the oratorical chords, I resented oratory. You should be able to have some speech making that has some purpose,’
rather than simply dazzling an audience to boost your ego.
Baker’s views on social action and the formulation and exchange of ideas were consistent with [those of Italian Marxist and theorist] Antonio Gramsci. He wrote: ‘The mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence, which is an exterior and momentary mover of feelings and passions, but in active participation in practical life, as constructor, organizer, ‘permanent persuader,’ not just a simple orator.’ Baker expanded on this notion, insisting that one’s words are important ‘only as they help people do things that are of value to themselves.'” (p. 361)

“Baker insisted that a movement was a web of social relationships. Charismatic leaders could rally an anonymous mass of followers to turn out for a single event or series of events; millions could watch television coverage of heroic actions by a brave few or speeches by mesmerizing orators; but that was mobilization, not organization. In order to be effective organizers in a particular community, Baker argued, activists had to form relationships, build trust, and engage in a democratic process of decision making together with community members. The goal was to politicize the community and empower ordinary people. This was Baker’s model, and in 1961 it became SNCC’s model.” (p. 270)

Ms. Baker was a socialist and a revolutionary, but she was never narrow or sectarian. “Her talent for making and keeping connections, for recognizing in people more than their ideological stance or organizational position, was an important, if sometimes invisible, contribution to the movement. Although she strove to be principled and consistent in her own politics, she allowed for divergent opinions between herself and others, keeping in mind the need for broader networks and coalitions. In turn, people who knew her trusted and respected Ella Baker, even if they did not always agree with her about strategy and tactics.”
(p. 284)

She understood and put into practice that political and social transformation cannot happen if those who wish to be change agents do not also change. “The process of building a movement for social transformation had to allow for, encourage and nurture the transformation of the human beings involved. Individuals had to rethink and redefine their most intimate personal relations and their identities. Activists could not simply ‘ape the insiders,’ Baker insisted. . .
Personal relations were key building blocks for a new, more humane social order and for a successful revolutionary movement.” (p. 369)

She didn’t put herself above those with whom she was working or those being outreached to, while being willing to share her wisdom as necessary. “She was willing to run the mimeograph machine and type letters, but she was just as determined to offer historical insights and theoretical critiques. . .” (p. 271)

She believed deeply in the intelligence and leadership abilities of low-income, grassroots people. “Baker appreciated the skills and resources that educated black leaders brought to the movement, but she urged SNCC organizers to look first to the bottom of the class hierarchy in the black community, not the top, for their inspiration, insights and constituency.” (p. 274)

Ms. Baker’s personal organizing style reflected these beliefs. “She was a consummate teacher,” one SNCC member recalled, “never pounding us, ‘You must do this, you must do that,’ [but simply] by raising questions.’ So, what are we trying to accomplish?, she would probe. Are we all in agreement? What do we really mean by that? These were her kind of questions. Her method of inquiry often helped anchor or center an unwieldy conversation. Another SNCC activist made similar observations: ‘Miss Ella would ask key questions, and through the asking of the questions, certain things became revealed.” (p. 328)

One of my most striking memories of Ms. Baker was an intervention she made at a meeting in the late ’70s of the Mass Party Organizing Committee. A dynamic, articulate, radical Black leader from the South was a speaker at this meeting and at one point in his presentation he said, in describing the level of consciousness among African American grassroots people, something like, “their subjective consciousness is not the same as their objective potentiality.” Ms. Baker, who had been quiet for quite a while up to this point, immediately spoke up and, in no uncertain terms, questioned what this meant. She warned of using leftist analysis or terminology in a way that would obscure the truth of things and paint “the people” as something other than what they really were.

I was very struck in reading Barbara Ransby’s valuable book how much Ella Baker was ahead of her time. She was a strong, independent woman decades before there was a women’s movement. She worked to advance what she called “group-centered” leadership long before a belief in the importance of internal and participatory democracy within our progressive organizations was widely shared. She was a coalition-builder par excellence. Principles were essential, but she was rarely if ever tactically rigid. She understood that the way individuals lived their personal lives could not be divorced from their political activities, that “the personal is political.”

As we stay strong and keep organizing in the face of corporate capitalism’s deep crises and daily injustices, let us learn from the inspiring life and work of the great leader Ella Baker.