Remembering a mentor

Conor Kelly (TheLorian)

During these few weeks, many Americans celebrate Black history for a month, but very few know the in-depth story of the Black Freedom Struggle. Indeed, very few would be familiar with Black activists beyond Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks. Perhaps some would recognize the name James Baldwin or John Lewis. But more often than not, very few know the name of Ella Baker. Though her work has inspired numerous works such as Barbara Ransby’s, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement, very few have taken deliberative efforts to examine her legacy. Despite her name being synonymous with the Black Freedom Struggle and the activism of grassroots politics, Ella Baker is a name that is consistently disregarded by the general public. It is time to remove such disregard from the public discourse.

Ella Josephine Baker was born on Jan. 13 1903 in Northfolk, Virginia. Though she was not born into poverty, Baker displayed a remarkable ability connect with people across classes. Indeed, she was a valedictorian in at Shaw University while at the same time, learning from her exposure to poverty in New York City during the great depression. From the very beginning, she worked to advocate for a new form of youthful politics, supporting YNCL, which sought to create cooperatives that would gather resources together to provide cheap goods to its members. Despite being in her twenties at the time, Baker was far from apolitical.

In the 1940s, she became the national secretary of the NAACP, traveling around the country to advocate for the organization’s goals. By 1943, she became the organization’s director of branches for the NAACP. During her time with NAACP, she worked with suffragettes such as Daisey Lampkin, who single-handedly organized the national convention in Pittsburg in 1931. Throughout her career with the NAACP, she consistently rejected top-down politics, arguing that the people on a local level could argue for their case more than any national leader could. To her, the people in all of their personhood, could advocate for their interests without outside interference. This grassroots attitude would leader to butt heads with the NAACP leadership throughout her years and by 1946, she resigned, but she was far from done.

Baker continued to work with the New York branch of the organization to organize local schools and to advocate for equality. By the 1950s, she worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to establish the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and served as its director. Though she was never one to limit herself to one organization, her time with the organization would prove transformative. During her time with the NAACP, she came into contact with Stanley Levinson, along with many others. Though she would never be satisfied with the legalese of the NAACP.

By the 1960s, Baker began to impress her ideas in a way that bloomed. With the rise of activism in 1960, Baker left the SCLC to help establish a new movement, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, more commonly known as SNCC. Indeed, one could argue that Baker was SNCC’s principle founder. It was her efforts that ensured that students would organize at Shaw University in 1960, and it was her efforts that ensured that students were able to advocate for new ideology of their own making, repudiating the SCLC’s control over the movement. To Baker, the best way to empower people is to let them empower themselves. Although Baker would pass in 1986, her legacy lives on.

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Conor J. Kelly was the Opinion Editor for the Lorian and a prolific staff writer. He graduated from Loras College in April of 2021 and is now pursuing his master's in political science at the University of Illinois, Springfield. You can find his new work on The Progressive American newsletter.

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