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

By Threadcraft, Shatema | Colorlines Magazine, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

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


Threadcraft, Shatema, Colorlines Magazine


BY BARBARA RANSBY

For those who work for racial justice, finding one's way without mentors can be all but impossible. But not all who would teach us sit next to us everyday. As a high school student in rural Georgia, I read Alice Walker's struggle to come to terms with her love/hate relationship with the South and felt that my own struggle was valid. Nikki Giovanni's "A Revolutionary Tale" helped me face my family after I left college without a job or career prospects. Toni Cade Bambara's essays and interviews in Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions taught me that varied and frequent travel makes a politically interesting woman. Today, conversations with Cathy Cohen, Danielle S. Mien, and Hawley Fogg-Davis let me know that searching for black women's political and intellectual history is a viable academic project. Of course, for me proof is nothing more than seeing that they can do it. These women have spoken to me in individually compelling and life-changing ways. But I see Ella Baker as the mother of them all. They were able to offer gentle encouragement because her work gave them a voice.

Historian and activist Barbara Ransby has written a biography of critical importance to contemporary racial justice activists. Ransby, a former anti-apartheid activist at Columbia and the University of Michigan, and currently associate professor of African American studies and history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, began this thorough research endeavor in 1989, when she chose Baker as the topic of her dissertation. Ransby's comprehensive depiction of Baker's life satisfies the reader hungry for biography as roadmap.

The book's 12 chapters each deal with a specific point in Baker's life and career, from her days growing up in North Carolina and her college years at Shaw to her work in depression-era Harlem; her work liberalizing the NAACP to her decisive influence on SNCC and their work at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Ransby concludes with an analysis of Baker's philosophy, asserting both that Baker's actions were the product of deep thought and study and that her actions constitute a major foundation of black political thought.

In addition to living a life that any saint would be proud of, Baker was extremely adventurous and thoroughly interesting. Born in 1903, educated first in the tradition of missionary service by her mother, Anna Ross Baker and later at Shaw University, Ella Baker moved to Harlem in 1927. She traveled throughout the Deep South organizing for the NAACP at a time when it was very dangerous for black people and women in particular to travel alone. The mere fact that she chose to do this would make her life extremely unusual and of interest to black women and activists. But she left us with so much more. …

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