Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision


One of the most important African American leaders of the twentieth century and perhaps the most influential woman in the civil rights movement, Ella Baker (1903-1986) was an activist whose remarkable career spanned fifty years and touched thousands of lives.

A gifted grassroots organizer, Baker shunned the spotlight in favor of vital behind-the-scenes work that helped power the black freedom struggle. She was a national officer and key figure in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and a prime mover in the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Baker made a place for herself in predominantly male political circles that included W. E. B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, and Martin Luther King Jr., all the while maintaining relationships with a vibrant group of women, students, and activists both black and white.

In this deeply researched biography, Barbara Ransby chronicles Baker's long and rich political career as an organizer, an intellectual, and a teacher, from her early experiences in depression-era Harlem to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Ransby shows Baker to be a complex figure whose radical, democratic worldview, commitment to empowering the black poor, and emphasis on group-centered, grassroots leadership set her apart from most of her political contemporaries. Beyond documenting an extraordinary life, the book paints a vivid picture of the African American fight for justice and its intersections with other progressive struggles worldwide across the twentieth century.


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. This means that we are going to have to learn to think in
radical terms. I use the term radical in its original meaning—getting down
to and understanding the root cause. It means facing a system that does not
lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system.

Ella Baker, 1969

Ella Baker spent her entire adult life trying to “change that system.” Somewhere along the way she recognized that her goal was not a single “end” but rather an ongoing “means,” that is, a process. Radical change for Ella Baker was about a persistent and protracted process of discourse, debate, consensus, reflection, and struggle. If larger and larger numbers of communities were engaged in such a process, she reasoned, day in and day out, year after year, the revolution would be well under way. Ella Baker understood that laws, structures, and institutions had to change in order to correct injustice and oppression, but part of the process had to involve oppressed people, ordinary people, infusing new meanings into the concept of democracy and finding their own individual and collective power to determine their lives and shape the direction of history. These were the radical terms that Ella Baker thought in and the radical ideas she fought for with her mind and her body. Just as the “end” for her was not a scripted utopia but another phase of struggle, the means of getting there was not scripted either. Baker’s theory of social change and political organizing was inscribed in her practice. Her ideas were written in her work: a coherent body of lived text spanning nearly sixty years.

Biography is a profoundly personal genre of historical scholarship, and the humbling but empowering process of finding our own meanings in another person’s life poses unique challenges. As biographers, we ask questions about lives that the subjects themselves may never have asked out-

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