Tag Archives: NAACP

What Ella Baker really thought about Baptist Ministers

Ella BakerThis is from an interview Ella Baker did with Eugene Walker in 1974 (the transcript is here, audio is here), who was most interested in the formation of SCLC and the key influences on it, so there isn’t follow up on many of Baker’s responses — but that’s always the way it is with other people’s interviews. Even so, it is a great complement to the various biographies. She was 71 years old, and very focused on the two widely different approaches to the work at play here — the bottom up current which she fought for, and the very very top down…

Well, the thinking about the nature of the organization would vary with the people who were doing the thinking. Those of us who preferred an organization that was democratic and where the decision making was left with the people would think in one vein and the organizing of active, let’s call it, chapters or units of people. But when you reckon with the fact that a majority of the people who were called together were ministers and the decision as to who was called together emanated no doubt both from the background out of which (let’s call it) Martin came and maybe lack of understanding (I’m willing to say) of the virtue of utilizing the mass surge that had developed there in Montgomery. Just look at Montgomery. What has happened since Montgomery? (12-13)

When Baker started work for the SCLC she was already an old hand at organising and movement building, but the ministers certainly weren’t — I can’t really imagine what it was like for her.

When you haven’t been accustomed to mass action, and they weren’t… You see basically your ministers are not people who go in for decisions on the part of people. I don’t know whether you realize it or not. And they had been looked upon as saviors. So what happened is, here they are faced with a suggestion that goes against the grain and with which they are not prepared to deal. So they come together. (14)

She knew it would be hard, didn’t really choose her role — so for her initially (once she had been bludgeoned into it) she planned to set up citizen committees, and then get out of the SCLC:

I had anticipated being there for about six weeks. Gave myself four weeks to get the thing going and two weeks to clean it up. But they had no one. How did they get Rev. Tilly? They wanted a minister. I knew that. They couldn’t have tolerated a woman.

The personality that had to be played up was Dr. King. The other organizations (if you know this), the executive director was the spokesman. But they couldn’t tolerate having an old lady, even a lady, and an old lady at that. It was too much for the masculine and ministerial ego to have permitted that. [Laughter] There you are. (19)

Asked about her early strategic input on SCLC to bring in more women and youth, Baker replies

I guess my own experience but basically in terms of the church. All of the churches depended in terms of things taking place on women, not men. Men didn’t do the things that had to be done and you had a large number of women who were involved in the bus boycott. They were the people who kept the spirit going and the young people. I knew that the young people were the hope of any movement. It was just a normal thing to me. The average Baptist minister didn’t really know organization.

She is able to talk a little more about the distrust between the NAACP, the Urban League and CORE, and to a lesser extent SCLC — primarily around strategy.:

You see, they couldn’t trust C.O.R.E. [Laughter] in their minds. What you have there is the division between those who have some respect for mass action and pressure and those who believe that your best results came from negotiations from the knowledgeable people. The negotiations from the knowledgeable and the legal action were the N.A.A.C.P. and the Urban League. (29)

Baker underlines the autocratic way she was ordered into the SCLC by Levinson and Rustin, as part of the In Friendship group they had formed to support the formation of a group after Montgomery.

They came back and told me that I had been drafted to go to Atlanta to set up the program for the Crusade for Citizenship for these twenty-odd meetings. Prior to that it had been assumed that Bayard would go down, but he was not available, let’s say. I was very provoked because I had never in my life.

EUGENE WALKER: Well, let me ask you this. This is the first major civil rights undertaking in the history of this country whereby a woman has been granted a seemingly, ostensibly significant policy-making kind of position. Now, were you taken by that? Was that gratifying to you?

ELLA BAKER: [Laughter] Oh no, no, no, no. Because I knew I didn’t have any significant role in the minds of those who constituted the organization. I’m sure that basically the assumption is, or was, and perhaps the assumption still prevails in the minds of those who remember my being there, that I was just there to carry out the orders of Dr. King and somebody else, but incidental since there was no designation of authority. I wasn’t a person of authority.

More about the significant obstacles Baker had to climb over as a woman:

The average attitude toward the southern Baptist ministers at that stage, and maybe still, was as far as their own women were concerned were that they were nice to talk to about such things as how well they cooked, how beautiful they looked, and how well they carried out a program that the minister had delegated them to carry out but not a person with independence and creative ideas of his own, but on whom they had to rely. They could not tolerate, and I can understand that they couldn’t, and especially from a person like me because I was not the kind of person that made special effort to be ingratiating. I didn’t try to insult but I did not hesitate to be positive about the things with which I agreed or disagreed. I might be quiet but if there was discussion and I was suppose to be able to participate, I participated at the level of my thinking. (53)

You like her more and more…The point of the SCLC for Baker:

The whole concept was we needed in the South a mass based organization that might further the involvement of masses of people similar to what had taken place in Montgomery. It didn’t have to be a bus boycott, but whatever. I think this is it. (63)

But she also emphasis the lack of deeper thought behind the movement —  because of their inexperience, because of the speed with which things happened. And of course, unstated, because of their inability to listen to those who did have experience, primarily Baker herself.:

the personnel who provided the leadership for S.C.L.C. had never come to grips with a philosophical concept other than the general concept of nonviolent mass action. I don’t think there was much—I’ll be gracious and say—either time or other bases for in-depth thinking about how far non-violent mass action can go and to what extent can you really involve people. You see, you may talk about it but when you respond—as the organization did—to situations—their major efforts were in response to situations—and when you exhaust yourself in situations (65)

The problem of always responding — who amongst us who has worked in movement-building organisation doesn’t know all about that? Baker’s real strength was in being able to create space to think bigger — and the SCLC did little to appreciate or utilise that skill.

She used that to the hilt in SNCC’s formation, however, and emphasises how important it was that SNCC be free of the others to escape their very real constraints and limits of their political thought — and how this is precisely what was most resisted by other groups:

I think the basic reason for the reactions of N.A.A.C.P. and S.C.L.C. to S.N.C.C. is the fact that they elected to be independent and they exercised the independence that only young people or unattached people, those who are not caught in a framework of thought, can exercise.

They were open to ideas that would not have been certainly cherished, or in some instances certainly, tolerated by either the N.A.A.C.P. or S.C.L.C. As a chief example, the moving into Mississippi. When they decided, they called it “Move On Mississippi” and they called it “MOM”. I think a delegation went to talk to Thurgood Marshall, who was then the chief counsel of the N.A.A.C.P. regarding this and to seek legal help. And Thurgood was not responsive. In the first place because the young people had expressed the opinion and the determination that they were going to accept help from wherever they could get it. Which meant that people like Crocket in Troy and other members of what is called the National Lawyers [unclear] —many white lawyers—which is leftist oriented, would be objectionable to the N.A.A.C.P. because they didn’t want to introduce this conflict of ideologies, of pro-communist ideology, and leave themselves open to the charge on the part of the authorities that the communists were taking over. (71-72)

There are some nice small commentaries on Black historians — so I love the moment when she says ‘Yes, I love Vincent (Harding).’ Then there’s an aside on Harold Cruse (who has been transcribed as Cruz)

I can look back probably at a book by Harold Cruse —I don’t remember seeing his name mentioned in Cruse’s book.
ELLA BAKER: Cruse is an embittered soul too, isn’t he?
EUGENE WALKER: It’s so evident when you look into his book. Oh, he’s embittered; he’s exceptionally candid in saying whatever he wants to say about anybody. He attacks everybody…
ELLA BAKER: …but himself.

She is very critical of the Baptist ministerial tradition — this was so good for me to read because these comments brought it home to me in a way nothing else has done. She’s critical of King in how fearful he remained of open dialogue — though I know he was better than others of that tradition.

ELLA BAKER: No. I don’t care how much reading you do, if you haven’t had the interchange of dialogue and confrontation with others you can be frightened by someone who comes and is in a position to confront you.
EUGENE WALKER: Especially if they confront you with an air of security and independence.
ELLA BAKER: Yes, and if they come with their own credentials. There was an insecurity, I think. I don’t know whether he was ever aware of it. It was a natural insecurity coming out of that Baptist tradition. Baptist ministers have never been strong on dialogue; it was dictum. (77)

I just  I love how she is well aware of how insecurity is not driven away by degrees, position or book-learning. Just as she is aware that being open to others is real strength. That so much was accomplished despite the weaknesses highlighted here… there is so much we owe the women of the South, and especially Ella Baker.


Interview with Ella Baker, September 4, 1974.
Interview G-0007. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007)
Baker, Ella, interviewee



Ella Baker — a biography from J. Todd Moye

17846757It was good to carve out the time to read two books on Ella Baker, I don’t think I do this enough really. Moye focused much on her role as an organizer than Barbara Ransby did, and quoted her directly a little more often, which I really liked.

[Y]ou didn’t see me on television, you didn’t see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put pieces together out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders. (2)

It’s nice to see the whole of that quote, not just the last line. I loved this one as well:

The problem in the South is not radical thought. The problem is not even conservative thought. The problem in the South is not enough thought. (5)

Ella Baker was born in 1903, the year that W.E.B. Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk. I like how Moye connects those two things. There are more stories of her family here, her grandmother conceived out of rape, the politics of the plantation and her battle to marry the man she wanted. Baker told these stories as:

a certain kind of commitment or resentment. It is not the kind of thing we would advocate at this point, but it shows that the drive for full dignity as human beings goes very deep in the struggle. (12)

Moye in many ways emphasises what Ransby also emphasised — Baker’s closeness to women’s organising as she grew up, being able to see just how well women could run meetings, set policy, manage finances. (20)

There is more on Harlem, too, from Baker herself once more:

the hotbed of–let’s call it radical thinking. You had every spectrum of radical thinking. . . . the ignorant ones, like me, we had lots of opportunity to hear and to evaluate whether or not this was the kind of thing you wanted to get into. Boy, it was good, stimulating! (31)

Moye emphasises she was reading Marx, discussing it in these radical circles, but that she could separate these ideas on social and economic organisation from the party itself, to which she never was committed. She worked very closely, of course, with George Schuyler on cooperatives (the YNCL goal – ‘to gain economic power through consumer cooperation’ (34)), and this book made me want to map out all of these connections because I keep finding new ones the more I read. I didn’t know that Schuyler had spent 1920s working for The Messenger, socialist magazine run by A. Philip Randolph, moved on to Pittsburgh Courier and the Negro National News.

Baker also formed the 135th St Library’s first Negro History Club with librarian Ernestine Rose. In 1933 she joined the branch’s Adult Education Committee, where she sponsored speakers and programs. In 1934 she was hired part time to coordinate community outreach programs. I hadn’t realised how connected she was to the library, quite how pivotal they were.

She was friends with Lester Granger, and he is the one who helped her get on the WPA’s Worker Education Project. She was always looking for work. That was brought home harder here I think, or perhaps I just noticed more the very precarious position she seemed to live through most of her life, looking for ways to work in the movement. On the WPA, Baker describes their connections they made:

We’d go around to settlement houses and conduct classes. For instance, those who were very knowledgeable about the history of working class organizations all the way back to the guild… (40)

They did union halls as well.

Moving to the NAACP years — there is more here on the many conflicts with director Walter White, his clashes with former director of branches William Pickens — the only other NAACP person from national office who had visited branches in South. Baker had a bruising schedule:

In 1942, between February and early July addressed 178 different groups, visited 38 branches in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia (51)

She encouraged branches to organise around problems they had identified, helped them develop campaigns as bottom up not top down. Saw her role when forced into accepting the position as Director of Branches:

To increase the extent to which the present membership participates in national and local activities…. To extend the membership base so as to have local branches include a larger proportion fo people in any given community….To transform the local branches from being centers of sporadic activity to becoming centers of sustained and dynamic community leadership. (59-60)

She held a leadership conference in NY December of 1944, then others in Cleveland, Indianapolis and Atlanta in first half of 1945. Look at this amazing picture:


The 1946 conference in Atlanta called ‘Give Light and the People Will find a Way’, was attended by representatives for Montgomery branch (a branch which Ella had ‘nurtured’ as field secretary), E.D. Nixon and Rosa Parks (62). More connections.

In 1946 she worked with CORE and FOR to plan the Journey of Reconciliation — the integrated ride through the South that she and Pauli Murray were prevented from going on as they were women. This became the blueprint for the later Freedom Rides. (67) More connections.

At the same time (how she had time, I do not know) Baker was also doing a lot of work with the NY branch of NAACP, particularly with the branch’s education committee, and serving as an advisor to youth council.

There is a little more information on ‘In Friendship’, the organisation she helped found and run to support the movement in the South, which in addition to fundraising:

also provided technical assistance to southern civil rights campaigns, organized conferences that brought together activists from throughout the region, and embarked on public relations campaigns that publicized conditions in the South to the rest of the country. (80)

Moye explores a little further the relationships between Ella Baker and both Septima Clark and Myles Horton, notes that she had participated in dozens of workshops at Highlander — I thought it must be so. She also worked with the Bradens from SCEF from early on:


In Friendship raised $2,000 for the Montgomery Improvement Association, and another $4,000 to send ML King to Africa and India to study Ghana’s independence movement and Gandhi’s philosophy. I find this quite extraordinary, partly in that I hadn’t heard it before, partly in the importance placed on education and building international solidarity.

The In Friendship trio (Baker, Rustin, Levinson) were continuing to look for what came next after the Montgomery movement — this is Baker on the SCLC:

We began to talk about the need for developing in the South a mass force that would . . . become a counterbalance, let’s call it, to the NAACP. (89)

There is more on how frustrated she was at the lack of momentum after Montgomery. Looking back it doesn’t feel that way until you take more note of the time between the boycott and those first sit-ins. There was a tentative step, though, towards the voter registration campaigns that would follow in the Crusade for Citizenship — only meant to be a one day action (!). SCLC had done none of the planning when they brought Baker on, yet she still pulled off some success. She continued to organise in support of mass movement and building a strong grassroots base, with a focus on MIA and the United Christian Movement (UCM) in Shreveport.

Moye writes that Baker pushed SCLC to partner with Highlander, stating that:

Bringing Clark from Highlander to SCLC may have been Baker’s greatest contribution to the organization. (102)

While I don’t know if this is true, amazing as Clark was, this becomes an even more curious omission for me in Ransby’s work.

There are more connections made here between Baker and some of the key figures and events — things that give me hope. The 4 students who lead the Greensboro sit in were part of NAACP youth group started by Randolph Bakewell — at the suggestion of field secretary Ella Baker. Bob Moses? His family had been members of one of the Harlem cooperatives that Baker organized in the 1930s, he and his brothers had delivered their milk (119). These are such wonderful examples of the effects that ripple outwards from positive action and that only come to fruition over a long period of time.

A few more quotes on Ella Baker’s leadership style, the kind of leadership that created so many leaders. This is from an (unnamed)  SNCC member:

Usually she preferred to answer [a question] with another question and then another, forcing us to refine our thinking and to struggle toward  an answer for ourselves. (123)

From Mary King:

At a very important period in my life, Miss Baker tempered my natural tenacity and determination with flexibility and made me suspicious of dogmatism… She taught me one of the most important lessons I have learned in life: There are many legitimate and effective avenues for social change and there is no single right way. She helped me see that the profound changes we were seeking in the social order could not be won without multiple strategies. She encouraged me to avoid being doctrinaire. “Ask questions, Mary,” she would say. (124)

Baker’s philosophy and SNCC’s slogan? Now so widely used I never knew where it came from: ‘Let the People Decide’ (126)


Always she worked to support the capacity of groups to make their own strategic decisions. When CORE called off the freedom rides and SNCC decided to continue them under the leadership of Diane Nash, Baker wrote them a three-page analysis of what she believed had been done wrong so far and needed to be improved on — media strategy for example (128).

A final aside on the importance of women to this movement despite the ways they were often sidelined as Baker’s biography and Danielle McGuire’s work make clear among others. Womanpower Unlimited — a group formed by local women in Jackson to collect money, clothing etc for the freedom riders, then further developed into conducting voter registration, education and peace activism (133). More ripples, more connections.

Baker became openly socialist at the end of her life, I’ll end on this 1969 address to Spelman College, which I love.

In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become 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. That is easier said than done. But one of the things that has to be faced is in the process of wanting to change that system, how much have we got to do to find out who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going. (166)

[Moye, J. Todd (2013) Ella Baker: Community Organizer of the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.]





Barbara Ransby — Ella Baker, the YNCL and NAACP

200217Ella 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.

ELLA BAKER (1903-1986). American civil rights activist. Photograph, c1970 Granger.
ELLA BAKER (1903-1986). American civil rights activist. Photograph, c1970 Granger.





Aldon D. Morris: The Indigenous Perspective on Social Movement

22493Aldon D. Morris’s book analysing the Civil Rights Movement using the indigenous perspective is one of the best things I’ve read in some time on this kind of subject… clearly a limited amount of time was spent revising this from a thesis, but it didn’t matter.

As with all the books I like best, it is firmly founded in people’s concrete experience and full of rich detail. He writes:

Organized protest against white domination has always been one of the cornerstones of the black experience (x).

He cites the slave revolts, Marcus Garvey’s UNIA , the March on Washington, the Congress of Racial Equality, the NAACP…all in the same tradition.

The tradition of protest is transmitted across generations by older relatives, black educational institutions, churches and protest organizations. Blacks interested in social change inevitably gravitate to this “protest community,” where they hope to find solutions to a complex problem… The modern civil rights movement fits solidly into this rich tradition of protest. (x)

Movement and struggle don’t just happen, they are part of a long history. So what marked the modern civil rights movement as different within this longer tradition (one often ignored)? It:

… broke from the protest tradition of the past in at least two crucial ways. one, it was the first time that large masses of blacks directly confronted and effectively disrupted the normal functioning of groups and institutions thought to be responsible for their oppression. The hallmark of the modern civil rights movement is that these mass confrontations were widespread and sustained over a long period of time in the face of heavy repression. Two, this was the first time in American history that blacks adopted nonviolent tactics as a mass technique for bringing about social change. (xi)

This engages with academic literature on movements, so it has to choose an approach and contrast it with others — I have to say, I haven’t bothered too much in exploring the others as he demolishes them fairly soundly. Aldon Morris himself is writing from the ‘indigenous perspective’:

the assumption is that mass protest in a product of the organizing efforts of activists functioning through a well-developed indigenous base. A well-developed indigenous base includes the institutions, organizations, leaders, communication networks, money, and organized masses within a dominated group. Such a base also encompasses cultural elements — music, oratory, and so on–of a dominated group that play a direct role in the organization and mobilization of protest…. a central concern of the indigenous perspective is to examine the ways in which organizers transform indigenous resources into power resources and marshals them in conflict situations to accomplish political ends. (xii)

I’ll skip to the conclusion now, because this is the real point of all of this literature on social movement, or should be:

The task of the indigenous perspective is to examine how dominated groups take advantage of and create the social conditions that allow them to engage in overt power struggles with dominant groups. (282)

I also love that Morris combines the economic, political and personal in this tripartite structure of oppression — quite similar to what Stuart Hall does though ideology was absent here.

The tripartite system of racial domination–economic, political, and personal oppression — was backed by legislation and the iron fist of Southern governments. In the short run all members of the white group had a stake in racial domination, because they derived privileges from it. poor and middle-class whites benefited because the segregated labor force prevented blacks from competing with them for better-paying jobs. The Southern white ruling class benefited because blacks supplied them with cheap labor and a weapon against the labor movement, the threat to use unemployed blacks as strikebreakers in labor disputes. Finally, most Southern whites benefited psychologically from the system’s implicit assurance that no matter how poor or uneducated, they were always better than niggers. (3)

So how did the civil rights movement arise? First, geography, the benefits of a segregated spatiality,  ‘the concentration of institutions and creation of close-knit communities where all lived together regardless of class or education. (3)

But in the beginning there was the church.

The black church functioned as the institutional center of the modern civil rights movement. Churches provided the movement with an organized mass base; a leadership of clergymen largely economically independent of the larger white society and skilled in the art of managing people and resources; an institutionalized financial base through which protest was financed; and meeting places where the masses planned tactics and strategies and collectively committed themselves to struggle. (4)

Bases of the United Defense League, MIA, ICC, ACMHR …

their ability to unite community leaders by bringing them directly into leadership positions while simultaneously organizing the black masses. They were able to organize the black masses because they themselves were mass-based organizations that had grown directly out of a mass based institution, the black church. It is almost inconceivable to picture an alternative route to mass mobilization in these complex black communities, with their deep social divisions and under a tripartite system of domination that controlled blacks and kept them powerless. (46)

A little more on what the church offered:

In the case of the civil rights struggle, the preexisting black church provided the early movement with the social resources that made it a dynamic force, in particular leadership, institutionalized charisma, finances, and organized following, and an ideological framework through which passive attitudes were transformed into a collective consciousness supportive of collective action. (77)

The Church and the NAACP.

The NAACP evolved as a bureaucratic organization. It did not emerge within the black community, nor were the black masses involved in shaping the organization at the outset. The NAACP began as a small group of black and white intellectuals who intended to organize the black masses to struggle for their rights. (13)

Out of necessity, the NAACP in the South was closely tied to the black church. The church, being independent of the white power structure, was often the only place where the NAACP could meet. (15)

They didn’t just meet there of course, ‘…in many cases the church ran the local Southern units, but within the constraints of the National office of the NAACP.’ (37) Many thought that it’s methods were the only proper way to effect change, dampening effect across the South, and many within it feared the rise of the SCLC and CORE, and their critique of NAACP methods. King writes:

when legal contests were the sole form of activity…the ordinary Negro was involved as a passive spectator. His interests were stirred, but his energies were unemployed. (123)

The opening salvo showing a new way of struggle was the Baton Rouge Bus Boycott. in 1953. Damn. I confess, I had not heard of it. Reverend Jemison led the movement here, a relative newcomer to the city but still very active — a common characteristic of the movements leading figures as they had no embattled history to divide people but were also connected to church networks, local community groups and the NAACP, which allowed others to unite behind them. The black community formed an umbrella organisation, the United Defense League to direct the boycott, and churches mobilised their congregations  — ‘this procedure … became the fundamental organizing principle of many later movements’, joining many leaders together into one organization with a common cause.

Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy knew the history of this boycott, they consulted closely with Jemison when the Montgomery bus boycott launched in 1955.

Another thing I vaguely knew, but this really brought home was the ferocity of the attack against the NAACP after the 1954 Brown v Board, when the NAACP were the only ones trying to implement it. The attack included legal and political efforts to force NAACP to share membership lists, putting all of its members at risk of direct violence and professional discrimination, firings, and boycotts. The Attorneys General of Louisiana, Alabama and Texas obtained injunctions against the NAACP operating in their states. Virginia passed 7 laws equally designed to stop the NAACP from functioning there. Florida approved $50,000 to investigate communist involvement in the NAACP. South Carolina banned teachers from belonging to it. This alongside threats and violence. The efforts continued through 1958 and 1959. When Arkansas made  it illegal for any state agency to employ members of the NAACP, 7 school principals and 37 teachers fired.

Morris notes this was a ‘brilliant strategy’ as NAACP committed to fighting legal battles, and wouldn’t itself break the law… (31) Between 1955 and 1958, the NAACP lost 246 branches in the South, intensified campaign to expand branches in North. I also greatly appreciate the point that ‘the attack destroyed not only a great deal of what the NAACP was but also what it might have become.’

Like Walter Rodney’s work, this makes me realise how little we take that aspect of loss into account — the damage of the moment is always so great that there seems little reason to think of the loss of all of what could have been, but isn’t that where much of the tragedy lies?

Equally interesting, however, is what filled the hole left by the NAACP in these communities, as Black resistance continued. Morris notes that the NAACP actually often served as a damper to resistance:

Ironically, the Southern white power structure’s attack on the NAACP played an important role in the rise of the modern civil rights movement…bureaucratic protest organizations of poor and dominated groups are not likely to initiate or direct a mass movement…. It is precisely the problem of developing appropriate tactics that an established bureaucratic protest organization claims to have solved… Alternative tactics therefore come to be viewed not as supplementary but as opposing, threatening, and incorrect… The established protest organization has much to lose if a significant segment of the dominated group supports alternative tactics, especially if that segment includes those who traditionally supported the bureaucratic organization. (35)

Anyone who has worked through an official organization to effect change, especially given their dependence on donations or grants, is familiar with this:

…as with all bureaucratic organizations, business is conducted in terms of very specific goals (e.g. registering a stated number of voters, winning certain court decisions) achievable within specific time frames (year, fiscal period). It is as if the “freedom goal” can be parceled into manageable units of inputs and outputs that can be convincingly displayed in charts and graphs upon request. (36)

The bus boycotts provoked debate about tactics and strategies, but even more powerfully, it showed that results could be obtained through direct action rather than courts and NAACP bureaucratic action. Given the shutdown of the NAACP, ministers began organising far outside the NAACP’s comfort zone, and looking to direct action.

So back to the indigenous perspective, and how it begins to look at this moment:

‘The indigenous perspective on social movements stresses the important role of local protest groups on a major social movement. Instead of one homogeneous civil rights movements, there were dozens of local movements with their own organizations, activists, interorganizational relationships, boundaries, and famous activists, organizations, and abstract concepts.  (40)

It’s funny just how heartening it is to read that in Montgomery, Birmingham and Baton Rouge, there was intense factionalism that divided the community before everyone came together to support the boycotts in a campaign that we look back on now with wonder. Because of the people, the knowledge and connection to history, there are continuities of leadership with the NAACP, but very new methods of protest. Morris names the principle three:

  1. decision-making apparatus and procedures

  2. reliance on charisma, mass emotionalism

  3. disruptive tactics by the masses (46)

This book is full of inspiritions, both in stories and quotes — this is one my favourite moments from Martin Luther King:

The opening hymn was the old familiar “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and when that mammoth audience stood to sing, the voices outside (the church building could not accommodate the large gatherings) swelling the chorus in the church, there was a mighty ring like the glad echo of heaven itself…The enthusiasm of these thousands of people swept everything along like an onrushing tidal wave. (47)

There is is the stupidly necessary reminder that it didn’t all kick off the way conventional history tells it and Rosa Parks was not just a tired woman. I love this quote from her too:

My resistance to being mistreated on the buses and anywhere else was just a regular thing with me and not just that day. (51)

So what were the principle contributions of the Montgomery Bus Boycott? ‘…the MIA, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., the nonviolent method, and success.’ (51)

Before the Montgomery Movement blacks had no mass-based movement organizations. The UDL of Baton Rouge had been successful, but that mass-movement lasted only seven days and was practically invisible to the larger black community. The importance of the UDL lies in what it taught to a small but significant number of community leaders… A protest of the magnitude of Montgomery was required to provide the larger community with a blueprint. (56)

Morris looks at Montgomery, then at Tallahassee. The mass meetings rotated from church to church, the funding coming from Black congregations themselves, the protests and victories and ongoing protest until promises of desegregated buses became real.

Birmingham showed these tactics could desegregate more than buses. There they demanded hiring of black police officers to patrol black communities, desegregate buses, railroad stations, disenfranchisement at the polls, discrimination in hiring, segregation of schools and at swimming pools, libraries and retail stores. Another amazing quote from Reverend Shuttlesworth:

I was trying to tear the system down. Out to kill segregation before it killed us. (70-71)

An interesting observation this one, about how things start…

Because Shuttlesworth was organizing a movement without the benefit of a precipitating outrage, such as the arrest of Rosa Parks, he was forced to make direct action popular by his personal acts and courage. (71)

Clearly the context is at work here too, the momentum building across the South — and Morris also notes the change after two world wars fought for freedom and democracy. I also like the concept of movement centres, cities where a number of factors came together to create the foundation for mass movement. He argues such movement centres had  7 characteristics:

  1. A cadre of social change-oriented ministers & congregations.
  2. Direct action organizations of varied complexity. Some churches, NAACP Youth Councils, CORE affiliates
  3. Indigenous financing coordinated through the church
  4. Weekly mass meetings, which served as forums where local residents were informed of relevant information and strategies regarding the movement. these meetings also build solidarity among the participants.
  5. Dissemination of nonviolent tactics and strategies. the leaders articulated to the black community the message that social change would occur only through nonviolent direct action carried out by masses.
  6. Adaptation of a rich church culture to political purposes. The black spirituals, sermons and prayers were used to deepen the participants’ commitment to the struggle.
  7. A mass-based orientation, rooted in the black community through the church. (194)

Movement Centres, Movement halfway houses and the key personalities in them heavily impact movement as it arises. For example, the large role that activists from Nashville played in the movement over all — college students filled disproportionate number of SNCC’s leadership positions and also held large roles in SCLC. Why? The presence of four black universities — Fisk, Tenessee State, American Baptist Teological Seminary and Meharry Medical School. The connections with Highlander and FOR, Reverend James Lawson a key leader on noviolence, and part of the Nashville Christian Leadership Council (NCLC).

Here he brings forward a critique of Piven & Cloward who saw movement as spontaneous, mass phenomena. Instead Morris argues that

Movement centers provided the organizational frameworks out of which the modern civil rights movement emerged, and it was organization-building that produced these centers.

Perhaps more interesting is his analysis of why movement organisation is so often dismissed.

  • the nature of movement centers themselves, how they operate in repressive circumstances, ebb and grow, focus often on what they face rather than their ‘wider significance, organizational strength, and capabilities.’ (75)
  • Organizers often themselves emphasize the spontaneous and unplanned nature of protest — shields the center and key activists from unwelcome attention, authorities can’t charge with conspiracy
  • assumptions by scholars (and cites P&C and Anthony Oberschall) ‘that subordinate groups ate usually without organizational resources and skills’ (76)

Yeah, a little accusation of academic racism in there. I think he’s right about that too. He continues his critique of P&C (I think because they are the most persuasive and ‘on-side’ theorists of this stuff, at least they are in my own opinion), ‘the civil rights movement was not simply a by-product of urbanization and economic modernization.’ Not simply on of the ‘spontaneous outbursts of mass defiance in response to rapid social change and community breakdown.’ It ‘grew out of the conscious and deliberate effort of organizers who understood the organizational nature and capacity of black society. Economic modernization and urbanization were necessary, but not sufficient, causes…’ (81)

All this, and we still haven’t gotten to the formation of the SCLC! It formed through conversations between Dr and Mrs King, Fred Shuttlesworth, C.K. Steele, Ella Baker, Ralph Abernathy, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin. Its first meeting was titled the ‘Southern Negro Leaders Conference on Transportation’ — initially focused on organising around segregation on buses. I liked Morris’s note that they saw that this was both a ‘just grievance’ but also connected to ‘economic survival’ as outlined in their first working paper. (84)

I like that insight into what campaigns could motivate direct action in the face of violence. How this combined with a belief that people could win, which is what Baton Rouge and Montgomery proved.

They also realized the white community was not monolithic and began strategising around the different interests, ways to split them. Morris argues that despite the popular view that the SCLC was top down, in fact

The real power of the SCLC was in its affiliates, the many churches who had mass bases so that this base was built into the very structure of the SCLC (89)

Membership structures — always interesting when contemplating how these things actually work, fund themselves, make decisions, implement decisions…

‘Community organizations became affiliates of the SCLC by paying a twenty-five-dollar fee and signing a charter committing them to organize their communities and to engage in direct action protests.’ (90)

The churches and related organizations constituted the crucial internal organization enabling the SCLC to mobilize community resources. they were so central that SCLC leaders called them the “invisible hand of God.” (91)

Given the connection with the church and the culture of the Black South, the charisma of individuals clearly played a key role — and apparently much has been written on the subject.

King clearly understood the social power of oratory and used it as a tool for agitating, organizing, fundraising, and articulating the desires of the black masses. (59)

Many leaders interviewed for this study recalled that King could attract large segments of oppressed blacks from the poolrooms, city streets, and backwoods long enough for trained organizers to acquaint them with the workshops, demands and strategies of the movement. (61)

Many critiqued charismatic leadership, and King in particular, but all recognised its usefulness in bringing people together. There is a lovely section on Ella Baker, and her fight in a very male-dominated movement, her constant argument that ‘for people’s movements to be effective, participants must encourage and build leadership among the masses.’ (103) In her own words:

Instead of “the leader”–a person who was supposed to be a magic man–you would develop individuals who were bound together by a concept that benefited larger numbers of individuals and provided an opportunity for them to grow into being responsible for carrying on the program. (104)

I’ll come back to her.

There is also an interesting discussion of efforts to create the ‘New Negro’ as part of the Crusade for Citizenship — and just how important it was to organizers, how much a simple sound bite. Still,  John Tilley wrote in Dec 1958 that the SCLC

had created the machinery for “penetrating each community, reaching the man on the streets, bringing him a simple, practical way of life which will help him to break through the oppressive system of discrimination and oppression, change his surroundings, and his oppressors and make a new person.” (106)

In more concrete terms, the Crusade spread far and wide methods and philosophy:

The Crusade played an important role in acquainting the masses all over the South with the SCLC’s ‘direct action” approach, introduced earlier in Baton Rouge, Montgomery, and other cities. Whenever local churches or oganizations affiliated with the SCLC, members of the community were exposed to an organized group identified with the new approach. (111)

Morris looks at CORE as well, and makes the important point that ‘CORE’s primary goal was to show that social problems could be solved through non-violent direct action’ (129). They didn’t just see nonviolence as a tactic, but as a value in and of itself — and for many promoting that, more than vanquishing racism was the main goal.

They were also a whiter organization, whereas the SCLC where leadership was entirely black, from beginning CORE suffered from paternalism and ‘in-house racial bickering’. Farmer noted many blacks not willing to work in interacial organisations, and ‘White liberals must be willing to work in roles of secondary leadership and as technicians.’ (132) But again what I found fascinating was just how often there was overlapping membership in local leadership. Reverand Wyatt Walker, for example, was a board member of the SCLC, president of Petersberg NAACP, and state director of CORE in Virginia. He saw all of them as umbrella organisations to help bring together varying groups and factions. He used all of them.

The sit-ins as well, often described as completely spontaneous, and generally agreed that 1 Feb 1960 saw the first sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina. In actual fact sit-ins had already been used in at least 16 cities across the South between 1957 and 1960. They were often mentored by older activists involved in multiple other networks, and often most successful in cities that were Movement Centres. Morris write:

Nineteen sixty was the year when thousands of Southern black students at black colleges joined forces with “old movement warriors” and tremendously increased the power of the devloping civil rights movement. (195)

While students often operated independently, many were already involved through movement centres, especially those in Black educational institutions who had very close ties to the NAACP, CORE, SCLC. Students received support and help in planning that helped sustain and grow the sit-in movement. They were supported by the community as well, financed, boycotts supported, bail money raised, free services from doctors etc… People repeatedly mortgaged homes and handed over savings as bail.

That makes my heart happy.

Ella Baker was a key figure in this — she convened all of the different students involved in the sit-in movement through SCLC — in 1960 the call went out for the Southwide Student Leadership Conference on Nonviolent Resistance to Segregation, where SNCC was formed. Sit-in participants were also meeting at Highlander, a population education centre that served as what Morris calls a ‘movement halfway house’. To be discussed separately. But I like how Morris argues that this is the foundation of the whiter student movements to come:

We can begin to answer the question of why that discontented group of affluent white students became involved in the politics of protest. That group entered into the politics of protest because the sit-ins by dominated black students provided them with a visible protest model, which demonstrated how they could proceed tactically and organizationally. (222)

Again Ella Baker was a bridge, this time not between students and the SCLC and other established adult civil rights organizations, but between white and black students, SDS and SNCC.

I’ll end with Birmingham, a triumph really. As an organizer, it gives me a little chill of awe to know that the SCLC held 65 consecutive nightly meetings rotating from church to church. They also brought on two organizers from SNCC to work with the youth movement. And they came up with what they called Project “C”.

C for confrontation with Birmingham’s power structure: Business and industrial elites, political elites serving status quo and race relations, and white extremist organizations, White Citizens Councils and KKK.

They decided it should be a ‘drama’, built it as a narrative — started out slow, low key, and building to crisis. They designed phased actions. Phase 1, limited daily sit-ins and picketing. Followed by Phase II, daily marches to City Hall. The city filed an injunction, King broke it on Good Friday and was imprisoned. Here he wrote the wonderful Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  Phase III – 1000 children march to the jail, more and bigger marches to the jail. Confrontations, water cannon, dogs. Victory.

Another favourite quote, something to remember too:

‘Reverend Walker remarked: “There’s two kinds of people. People who are committed to the movement and people who get committed by the movement…” (264)

In the end, civil rights movement in this period unable to change one the tripartite system of domination — the economic was left intact. And so I will end where Morris’s book ends:

A critical question confronting the black community today is whether the organizations, leadership, tactics, and philosophies of the civil rights movement are appropriate for bringing about basic economic change, or whether a whole new set of structures and tactics is needed. (290)

Interesting question, particularly looking at today’s struggles.