Why Ella?

During Black History Month most of the talk is about Malcolm and Martin and the next month it is Stanton and Steinem. One progressive political tradition coming out of the United States context, out of the Black Freedom Movement in particular, that is not often discussed or advanced, is the tradition embodied in the work of Ella Baker (1903-1986). Ella Baker is best known as the intellectual and spiritual force behind the Student Non-violent Coordinating committee (SNCC) formed in 1960, but her career as an activist spanned over fifty years. She worked in the cooperative movement in Harlem in the 1930s, was a field secretary and director of branches for the NAACP in the 1940s, and worked alongside Dr. King is setting up the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the 1950s. She worked with the Third World Women’s Alliance, the Mass Party Organizing Committee and the Free Angela (Davis) Campaign.

Ella Baker made an enormous impact in her lifetime. The challenge today is how to make her legacy a living lesson, challenge, and inspiration for younger generations of women? The challenge now is how to use the story of Baker’s life and teachings as a tool for building a stronger social justice movement today.

Some activists worry about the absence of a galvanizing political leader today in the mold of a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Some people feel activists need a single issue like the war in Vietnam or Jim Crow segregation in the South to focus our energies. Well, the long and eclectic political career of Ella Baker offers a hopeful response to these questions. First of all, Ella rejected the idea that any single charismatic leader can save us. "Strong people don't need strong leaders," she insisted. Do we need a single issue? The movement of the 1950s and 60s was never about a single issue. The war in Vietnam and the struggle for black freedom provided two focal points but embedded within those struggles were also struggles around jobs, education, economic justice, civil liberties, sexism, welfare, self-determination, anti-violence and anti-imperialism. Ms. Baker's political philosophy always embodied working on multiple fronts at once. She belonged to multiple organizations and borrowed from various ideologies to make sense of the world around her and to fashion a strategy to transform it. She supported Puerto Rican independence, and condemned South African Apartheid. She opposed the war in Vietnam and supported women's rights. She exposed the inequities embedded in the capitalist economic system and demanded democratic processes of decision-making within progressive organizations. She worked on multiple fronts at the same time and enjoyed political relationships with a variety of progressive activists. There was not a sectarian bone in her body. But when choices had to be made, which inevitably they did, Ella Baker stood with the most oppressed sectors of society: the poor, the unemployed, the victims of violence and colonialism, women, children and those without formal education. She stood in solidarity with them, not in service to them. Baker was also a strong supporter of young women’s leadership.

Ella Baker was a critical force in uniting disparate sectors of the progressive movements of the 20th century. Ella’s Daughters alone will not constitute such a movement in the 21st century, but can and will help facilitate critical connections that can move us in that direction. In the women’s quilting tradition, Ella’s Daughters can sew together the different fragments of a movement, one stitch at a time.