Ella Baker didn’t write her memoirs, and there is as yet no collection of her writings — I am hoping that there will be one at some point. I always prefer to start with people’s own words, though I love biographies like this one too. My only possible critique is perhaps that there weren’t enough of Baker’s own words in here since they are so hard to find elsewhere.
This is a good quote though.
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 you needs and devising means by which you change that system.
— Ella Baker, 1969 (1)
I like her use of the word radical. I like too her vision of how change to that system happened:
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. (1)
Not everyone agreed with her on this, and just like Septima Clark she faced down a lot of sexism in the movement, as well as having to overcome some of her own class prejudices. This post is a bit listy because Ella Baker did so much. Still, it’s a start for thinking about the meaning of her practice and all she achieved.
Ransby tells a story about Ella Baker, that she would ask those she met, ‘Who were your people?’ What I like most about Ell Baker is that she ended up choosing her people, but it’s still a good question.
A little younger than Clark, she was also raised on stories of slavery but from her grandmother — stories of struggle and triumphs, not degradation. Her maternal grandparents had bought land, and Ransby highlights the meaning of land in the close community Baker was raised in, with its collective parenting and values of ‘Cooperation, the sharing of resources, and a strong community spirit…’ (37):
[They] never regarded the land they purchased in 1888 as private property in the strict sense of the term. They viewed it not only as a resource for the economic well-being of their immediate family but also as a source of stability for the entire community. Land could serve as a weapon in the struggle against the white planters’ attempts to dominate and control the African American population. (37)
They donated some of this land for a school.
A few facts on Norfolk, VA where she was raised, this kind of thing still never fails to shock me, this creep of Jim Crow (C. Vann Woodward describes all this, and yet I still sometimes forget how recent all this ‘old-time’ Jim Crow was):
1901 — 1,826 African Americans voted
1903 — Ella Baker was born
1904 — only 44 African Americans paid the tax required for them to vote
1910 — race riot in which whites randomly attacked blacks after Jack Johnson beat white boxer
Despite all of this, she was raised in one of the few districts left with a majority black electorate where almost all of the others had been gerrymandered out of power after reconstruction. Thus Blacks in her area wielded more political power and were safer than those in many counties. She was protected from most virulent racism. As Baker remembers, this was a close knit community:
We did not come in contact with whites too much….I was shielded from having contact with them at an early age …. This was a complete black community to a large extent. Even the store on the corner, it was Mr. Foreman’s store, he was black. Even the ice cream store was owned by Mr Evans….So, this is the kind of insulation that was provided by the black people themselves…you didn’t have to run afoul of a lot of insults. (39-40)
Seems like a lot of people were striving to achieve just that, and it resonates with lots of things were still talking about it terms of keeping money in the community and supporting local business. Ransby writes:
Most black children in the early twentieth century had to work for wages as field hands or domestics…. Ella Baker’s grandfather had insisted that that his children and grandchildren not work for white people. (40)
A lot of these threads go way back.
From Norfolk, Ransby describes the educational efforts that went into the forging of middle class-ness through Shaw College:
Shaw students were forbidden from socializing with the black community in Raleigh, except in the formal capacity of charity workers under the supervision of school authorities. (53)
This is all wrapped up in the philosophies of the Southern Baptist and coloured Women’s clubs “lift as we climb” approach to community service.
‘As some members of the race excelled and progressed, it was their duty to help others along and to contribute to the welfare of those less able and fortunate than themselves. This responsibility to serve the community was derived as much from a sense of class distinction as from a sense of moral duty. Yet for African American women the relationship between class status and moral obligation was a reciprocal one; indeed, staunch religious faith and selfless service to others was one way in which a woman and her family could attain a respectable, even elevated position within the community. (18)
Lucky all that Baker moved far away from much of that, in struggle as much as geography. Moved as far as Harlem, in fact, in 1927.
Damn, Harlem. What a time that was. Baker says
“I cam up out of the subway at 135th and Lenox into the beginnings of the Negro Renaissance. I headed for the Harlem YMCA down the block, where so many new, young dark…arrivals in Harlem have spent their early days. The next place I headed to that afternoon was the Harlem Branch Library just up the street.” (69)
She must have said more…but Baker would be active in Harlem for the rest of her life, always connected through her apartment even when she was based down in the South. I like that the YMCA and the library were ‘the dual pillars of Harlem’s intellectual and political life for over two decades.’ (69) Reflecting on her arrival there, Baker says:
I, perhaps at that stage, had the kind of ambition that others may have . . . the world was out there waiting for you to provide a certain kind of leadership and give you the opportunity. But with the Depression, I began to see that there were certain social forces over which the individual had very little control. It wasn’t an easy lesson. It was out of that context that I began to explore more in the areas of ideology and theory regarding social change. (104)
Going back to the idea of movement halfway houses, Baker spent a semester at Brookwood Labour College, ‘to learn about theories and models of social change, as well as the history of working people.’
Founded by socialists in 1921, Brookwood’s 1st chairman of the faculty was A.J. Muste — leader in the labour movement, then member (later head) of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) which shows up again and again (and then again) in radical histories of the century. There Baker met Pauli Murray, a longtime friend and comrade, someone else to read more about.
She became friends with the (famous/ later somewhat infamous) George Schuyler and his wife Josephine, became part of his circle. They helped found the Young Negroes’ Cooperative League, with Schuyler as president and Baker as national director. Some of its principles — and principles that Baker would carry with her through the whole of her life:
- full inclusion and equal participation of women
- full participation of its rank and file in decision making and leadership
- young people should be in the forefront of the struggle for social change (83)
In 1930 they came up with a 5 year plan (inspired by Lenin), their goals were to train 5,000 co-op leaders by 1932, establish a wholesale cooperative outlet by 1993, finance an independent college by 1937. (86)
As a former organiser I confess, I like hearing other people’s goals– and these are damn impressive. They didn’t reach them, but it was still something: The YNCL grew from 30 members (they made these goals with 30 members?) in December to 400 in two years, local councils in 22 cities stretching between both coasts. 22 cities? I wish there was more on this. Again like Septima Clark’s work, and the cooperative grocery they formed in the front room of the first citizenship school, these stories and efforts to build more cooperative ways of working intertwine with so much of the struggle. Shit, we’re still trying to build cooperatives. Ransby writes:
Buying cooperatives would, they hoped, demonstrate on a small scale the efficiency of collective economic planning and simultaneously promote the values of interdependency, group decision making, and the sharing of resources. (86)
In 1936 she began working as a consumer education teacher for the Workers Education project (WEP) of the WPA — who didn’t work for the WPA? I would give almost anything to have been hanging around there…she did what she did and looked for jobs that would support her in that.
Then 1940, WWII, the double V movement for victory abroad and victory at home, and Baker joined staff of NAACP as assistant field secretary. Ransby notes that Baker was:
convinced that how one fought was as important as what one was fighting for; the key to change lay in the process of movement building. (106)
This meant the NAACP was somewhat frustrating, particularly as women were ‘indispensable but underappreciated’ in the NAACP. No woman had been elected as executive secretary and they were usually excluded from inner decision making circles despite being the backbone of many active branches and national staff. The NAACP provided an opportunity, though a flawed one. (106)
Already Ella Baker was fighting the class biases of black professionals, who:
had attitudes that were not particularly helpful in terms of change. For instance,…they would be against the idea of going to battle for the town drunk who happened to have been brutalized when being arrested, because who was he? (120)
I love that Baker would fight for the town drunk. Through 1942 and 43 she increasingly became involved in the labour movement and CIO organizing efforts as part of her NAACP work, though not quite in the ways she hoped — she wrote to Lucille Baker after going to support CIO organizing shipyard workers in Newport News, VA:
The CIO is moving in, organizing everything . . . . I wish I could stay here several months. It is just the time to do a real piece of organizing for the NAACP, but as usual, I can only linger long enough to stir up sufficient interest to increase the membership by a few hundred and collect a few dollars. . . . (133)
I love this quote too. Love how Baker wants to stay put, spend more time developing relationships, really organise rather than just get some members and raise some money. NAACP didn’t have much idea what was possible through that. Still, in 1943, her friends unexpectedly catapulted her into the position of the NAACP’s director of branches — White didn’t even ask her before putting out press release. She was pretty pissed, but she ended up saying yes. How could you say no? She traveled the country, still getting members, still raising money.
In the early 1950s (now over 20 years since she first started this kind of work mind, some long hard years and she’s still going) she became part of the struggle to improve public education. After Brown v Board she worked with Kenneth and Mamie Phipps Clark to fight for ‘community-based’ models of learning. They founded Parents in Action, trying to bring together African American and Puerto Rican parents in the same struggle for education. The group was able to act with autonomy from the more constricting NAACP — feels like Baker had a very conflicted relationship with the NAACP. She had an ambiguous relationship to the NAACP’s communist purging as well, part of the committee, but she worked with socialists before and after all of this. You’re doing good work in the community, she would work with you.
In 1955 she also joined Stanley Levison and Bayard Rustin to form In Friendship to funnel resources to Montgomery Bus Boycott … this would later be essentially taken over by E. Phillip Randolph, to be run by a committee handpicked by George Meany, head of the AFL-CIO.
The conflict between In Friendship and the union leaders also illustrates the reluctance of established leaders to relinquish any of their power to, or even make room for, upstart organizations. Baker encountered this problem repeatedly over the years. (166)
Still, it is through In Friendship that Ella Baker would be on hand to help form the SCLC. Then there’s SNCC, and the heart of her most exciting popular education and organising work, as well as lessons learned. To be saved for part 2, but first? A side note — I absolutely love that one of Ella Baker’s few indulgences were her fabulous hats.