"In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become a part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you can change that system. That is easier said than done."
Ella Baker was born in Norfolk, Virginia on December 13, 1903. The granddaughter of a slave, Ella Baker spent her life working behind the scenes to organize the Civil Rights Movement. Baker was a staunch believer in helping ordinary people to work together and lead themselves, and objected to centralized authority. In her worldview, "strong people don't need strong leaders."
In 1927, after graduating from Shaw University in North Carolina as class valedictorian, Baker moved to Harlem and began her career of organizing and establishing consumer cooperatives during the Depression. She taught for the Education Project of the WPA during this time, focusing on consumer education, labor history and African history. She joined the NAACP's staff in 1938 and spent much time traveling in the South to build support for local branches, which would become the foundation of the Civil Rights Movement. She was named director of branches in 1943, making her the highest ranking woman in the organization. In 1946 she reduced her NAACP responsibilities to work on integrating New York City public schools and issues of police brutality.
Baker was one of the visionaries who created the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, and she drew the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to it. She served two terms as the SCLC's acting executive director, but clashed with King, feeling that he controlled too much and empowered others too little.
In 1960 four black students in Greensboro, North Carolina, were refused service in a university cafeteria, setting off sympathetic sit-ins across the country. In response to this Ms. Baker founded the nationwide Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which gave young blacks, including women and the poor, a major role in the Civil Rights Movement. Ms. Baker was also instrumental in the progress of Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and the Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF).
Baker returned to New York City in 1964 and worked for human rights until her death in 1986. Her words live on in "Ella's Song," sung by Sweet Honey in the Rock: "We who believe in freedom cannot rest. Her message continues via the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, based in Oakland, CA, a non-profit action center aimed at justice, opportunity and peace in urban America.