Who Was Ella Baker?

Ella Jo Baker

“The major job was getting people to understand that they had something within their power that they could use, and it could only be used if they understood what was happening and how group action could counter violence…” 

- Ella Jo Baker

Today, the growing crisis of mass incarceration in the US is urgently calling for group action by people from all walks of life.

Private prison companies, the failed War on Drugs, and anti-immigrant policies are all part of a dangerous tradeoff: wasting our public resources on ineffective approaches while our schools and communities struggle.      

Through our Books Not Bars campaign, the Ella Baker Center successfully organized families of incarcerated youth to win alternatives to California’s costly, broken youth prison system and stop the building of new jails.

Now, we're taking Books Not Bars nationwide to mobilize an even bigger movement to end mass incarceration in the US and invest the savings in schools, job training, and other programs that create lasting prosperity for all.

We’re crazy enough to believe that we can turn this thing around, but we are not fool enough to think we can do it alone. 
 

Wherever you are, there's something you can do to end the mass incarceration tradeoff.  

Join the Movement 

The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights is named after a largely unsung hero of the civil rights Freedom Movement who inspired and guided emerging leaders.  

Ms. Baker played a key role in some of the most influential organizations of the time, including the NAACP, Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. 

Like her, we spark change by unlocking the power of every person to strengthen their communities and shape their future. 

Ella Baker's Early Life

Ella Jo Baker was born on December 13, 1903, in Norfolk, Virginia.  Growing up in North Carolina, she developed a sense for social justice early on, due in part to her grandmother's stories about life under slavery.

As a slave, her grandmother had been whipped for refusing to marry a man chosen for her by the slave owner.  Her grandmother's pride and resilience in the face of racism and injustice continued to inspire Ms. Baker throughout her life.  

Baker studied at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. As a student she challenged school policies that she thought were unfair. After graduating in 1927 as class valedictorian, she moved to New York City and began joining social activist organizations.  

In 1930, she joined the Young Negroes Cooperative League, whose purpose was to develop black economic power through collective planning. She also involved herself with several women's organizations. She was committed to economic justice for all people and once said, "People cannot be free until there is enough work in this land to give everybody a job."

Joining the Struggle Against Jim Crow

Ella Baker began her involvement with the NAACP in 1940. She worked as a field secretary and then served as director of branches from 1943 until 1946.

Inspired by the historic bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, Baker co-founded the organization In Friendship to raise money to fight against Jim Crow Laws in the deep South.

In 1957, Baker moved to Atlanta to help organize Martin Luther King's new organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She also ran a voter registration campaign called the Crusade for Citizenship.

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)

On February 1, 1960, a group of black college students from North Carolina A&T University refused to leave a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina where they had been denied service.

Baker left the SCLC after the Greensboro sit-ins. She wanted to assist the new student activists because she viewed young, emerging activists as a resource and an asset to the movement. Miss Baker organized a meeting at Shaw University for the student leaders of the sit-ins in April 1960. From that meeting, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee -- SNCC -- was born.

Adopting the Gandhian theory of nonviolent direct action, SNCC members joined with activists from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to organize the 1961 Freedom Rides. 

In 1964 SNCC helped create Freedom Summer, an effort to focus national attention on Mississippi's racism and to register black voters.

Miss Baker, and many of her contemporaries, believed that voting was one key to freedom.  Today, that is still the case: if we do not exercise our collective voice, we are unable to influence the policies and laws that impact our lives. To be counted, we must be heard. 

The Audacity to Dream Big

With Ella Baker's guidance and encouragement, SNCC became one of the foremost advocates for human rights in the country. Ella Baker once said, "This may only be a dream of mine, but I think it can be made real." 

Her influence was reflected in the nickname she acquired: "Fundi," a Swahili word meaning a person who teaches a craft to the next generation. Baker continued to be a respected and influential leader in the fight for human and civil rights until her death on December 13, 1986, her 83rd birthday.

Wanting to celebrate Ella Jo Baker as an unsung hero of racial and economic justice and seeking to honor her legacy of leadership and movement building, our founders chose to name our Center for Ella Baker. Her audacity to dream big is a cornerstone of our philosophy.

We believe the best way to honor Ms. Baker's legacy is to inspire people to imagine new possibilities, lead with solutions, and engage communities to drive positive change.  Join us and keep her story going.

Join our national network of folks building on Ms. Baker's legacy