Black Prophetic Fire: Cornel West on Ella Baker (Part One)

Excerpted from Black Prophetic Fire by Cornel West in Dialogue with and Edited by Christa Buschendorf. Copyright 2014. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.

In Black Prophetic Fire, Cornel West, in conversation with scholar Christa Buschendorf, aims to shed light on what is missing from the fight for justice today by examining past Black leaders. In the following excerpt, they discuss the work of Ella Baker.  

No figure embodies more convincingly than Ella Baker the genius of grassroots organizing in the civil rights movement. Her deep commitment to democratic decision making turned her into an ideal choice for our next conversation, which took place in summer 2012, when the Occupy movement was at its height. With Ella Baker we opened up the field of the female voices within the Black prophetic tradition. The women, in contrast to their charismatic male companions, had not just been sanitized but, worse, marginalized.

CHRISTA BUSCHENDORF: In our three previous conversations we talked about Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King Jr. Even when we consider the tremendously rich tradition of African American intellectuals and activists, these were obvious choices. After all, all three were considered towering figures, if not the most towering intellectuals of their time, by their contemporaries as well as by posterity. To many, our choice to speak about Ella Baker will be much less evident, although she clearly belongs to the exclusive group of long-distance runners, i.e., freedom fighters who devote their whole lives to the struggle for freedom and justice. However, her life’s work is more difficult both to access and to assess.

First, as a highly skillful organizer, she often became an indispensible member of the organization for which she chose to work, but she never stood in the limelight of the movement. Second, while she held concise theories of social change and political action, she never put them down in writing. There is no memoir; there is no collection of essays. There are just speeches, a few newspaper articles, and interviews, but apart from that, we rely on biographers who consulted her papers and spoke to the people who knew her personally. Third, her very theory of political action is decidedly group-centered in that she firmly believed in a kind of grassroots organizing that would allow the poor and oppressed to get actively involved in the fighting.

To Baker, the ideal activist was not the charismatic figure of the prophet who mobilizes the masses by mesmerizing speeches but an unassuming person who helps the suppressed to help themselves. As she put it in 1947, “The Negro must quit looking for a savior, and work to save himself.” And twenty years later, with regard to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which she cofounded, she maintained, “One of the major emphases of SNCC, from the beginning, was that of working with indigenous people, not working for them, but trying to develop their capacity for leadership.” If, then, Ella Baker may not be as obvious a choice as Douglass, Du Bois, and King, she nevertheless is, I think, a very obvious choice for you. So could you just start by giving us an assessment of why you cherish her personality and her work in the civil rights movement?

CORNEL WEST: I think in many ways Ella Baker is the most relevant of our historic figures when it comes to democratic forms of leadership, when it comes to a deep and abiding love for not just Black people in the abstract or poor people in the abstract, but a deep commitment to their capacities and their abilities to think critically, to organize themselves, and to think systemically, in terms of opposition to and transformation of a system. When we think of the Occupy movement—we do now live in the age of Occupy in this regard—and Ella Baker’s fundamental commitment to what Romand Coles calls “receptivity”—Coles’s work also was quite powerful in terms of Ella Baker’s legacy—learning to receive from the people, not just guide, not just counsel, not just push the people in a certain direction, but to receive from the people the kinds of insight that the people themselves have created and forged in light of a tradition of ordinary people generating insights and generating various visions. And so it’s grassroots in the most fundamental sense of grassroots.

And I don’t think that even Douglass, in all of his glory, and Du Bois, in all of his intellectual genius, and King, in all of his rhetorical genius, have that kind of commitment to the grassroots, every day, ordinary people’s genius in this sense. And of course, there is a gender question as well: her powerful critique of patriarchal models of leadership, including especially messianic models of leadership, which ought to be a starting point for any serious talk about organizing and mobilizing and social change in the twenty-first century.

In addition, I was just in dialogue with my dear brother Bob Moses. He spent a whole year at Princeton, and his office was right across the hall from mine. Of course, for him, Ella Baker is the grandest figure in radical democratic praxis, and he is very much a disciple of Ella Baker. He is quite explicit about that, very explicit that charismatic leadership, messianic leadership is something that he rejects across the board. But I think what comes through is that Ella Baker has a sensitivity to the existential dimension of organizing and mobilizing, and what I mean by that is that for her political change is not primarily politically motivated.

This goes back to her early years in the Black Baptist women’s missionary movement. When she talks about humility with the people, not even for the people but with the people, when she talks about service alongside the people, and when she talks about everyday people, everyday people’s capacities becoming more and more manifest at the center of the movement, not something that is just used and manipulated by messianic leaders, but at the center of the movement, that’s a kind of democratic existentialism of a sort that I see in her work—and I see in Bob Moses’s. But you see it in very few people’s works.

There are elements of this in some of the anarchists, and that’s why I have a tremendous respect for anarchism, because anarchism has this deep suspicion of hierarchy, be it the state in the public sphere, corporations in the private sphere, or cultural institutions in civil society. We know Baker worked with George Schuyler, who called himself an anarchist in the 1930s. He ended up a reactionary right-wing brother, but he earlier called himself an anarchist. We also know Bayard Rustin was an anarchist, called himself an anarchist quite explicitly. We know that Dorothy Day called herself an anarchist, quite explicitly, till the day she died. This is a great tradition I have great respect for, and I see it among my young brothers and sisters of all colors in the Occupy movement, even though I don’t consider myself an anarchist.

I do see similarities between Ella Baker’s position and the council Communist tradition that called for Soviets without Bolsheviks, that called for workers’ councils without a revolutionary vanguard party that served as managerial manipulators of the people in the councils, so that the self-organization of working people was the kind of radical organizing among everyday people without any managers, experts, or party members telling them what to do. And there is some overlap between Herman Gorter and Anton Pannekoek and some of the early council Communists that mean much to someone like myself coming out of a deep democratic tradition.  And so, ironically, Ella Baker, the very figure who one would think would be marginal vis-à-vis these male-type titans, ends up being the most relevant in light of our present dark times of political breakdown, economic decline, and cultural decay.

[Check back for Part 2 of this excerpt next week.]

Excerpted from Black Prophetic Fire by Cornel West in Dialogue with and Edited by Christa Buschendorf. Copyright 2014. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.