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Ella Baker helped to inspire and guide emerging leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. She was also a key figure in some of the most influential organizations of the time, including the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Ella Jo Baker was born on December 13, 1903, in Norfolk, Virginia and she grew up in North Carolina. Her interest in social justice stemmed from listening to her grandmother recall stories from her time in enslavement. The resilience of her grandmother helped to inspire Baker and cultivated her passion for activism.
She attended Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, and graduated in 1927 as class valedictorian. Baker then moved to New York City and began joining social activist organizations. She joined the Young Negroes Cooperative League in 1930 and also involved herself with several women’s organizations.
In 1940, the activist began her involvement with the NAACP working as a field secretary before being promoted to director of branches from 1943 until 1946. However, in 1957 Baker moved to Atlanta to work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Just three years later, Baker returned to her alma mater and organized the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Students were heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement and Baker viewed them as a resource and an asset to the movement. SNCC, along with activists from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to organize the 1961 Freedom Rides. The organization was also successful in creating Freedom Summer, which was an effort to focus national attention on Mississippi’s racism and register black voters. Baker believed that economic justice and voting were powerful tools of liberation.
“The major job was getting people to understand that they had something within their power that they could use, and it could only be used if they understood what was happening and how group action could counter violence,” said Baker.
Baker remained a well-known and respected leader in the struggle for civil rights until her death on December 13, 1986 (also her 83rd birthday). However, her legacy and all that she stood for continue on today through the work of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.