Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement

By Bettye Collier-Thomas; V. P. Franklin | Go to book overview
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Chapter 3

Behind-the-Scenes View
of a Behind-the-Scenes Organizer
The Roots of Ella Baker's Political Passions

Barbara Ransby

Ella Baker is perhaps best known for her role as a supporting actor in the Civil Rights Movement drama of the 1950s and 1960s. But the breadth and depth of her role in the Black Freedom Movement is often underrated. From the 1930s until her death in 1986, Ella Baker participated in over thirty organizations and campaigns ranging from the Negro cooperative movement during the Depression to the Free Angela Davis campaign in the 1970s. Her best documented role in the modern Civil Rights Movement was first as national director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and more importantly as founder and advisor to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) for its first six years of existence. Although many people can claim credit for the political impact SNCC had on the larger Civil Rights Movement and the nation, Ella Baker was probably the single most influential individual within the organization. James Forman, the executive secretary of SNCC, once observed that there were many people who knew the light that was SNCC without ever knowing the spark that was Ella Baker.1 Kwame Ture (Stokley Carmichael), who succeeded John Lewis as chairman of SNCC in 1966, described Baker as “one of the most powerful individuals, if not the most powerful, in SNCC—no question.”2 Activist, historian, cultural performer, and former SNCC member Bernice Johnson Reagon recognizes Ella Baker as her “political mother.”3

Ella Baker was a physical and psychological anchor for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, even though she was not a stu

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