Ella Baker

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Ella Baker (December 13, 1903 – December 13, 1986) was an African-American civil rights and human rights activist. She was a largely behind-the-scenes organizer whose career spanned more than five decades. She worked alongside some of the most famous civil rights leaders of the 20th century, including W. E. B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, A. Philip Randolph, and Martin Luther King Jr. She also mentored many emerging activists, such as Diane Nash, Stokely Carmichael, Rosa Parks, and Bob Moses.


  • Remember, we are not fighting for the freedom of the Negro alone, but for the freedom of the human spirit, a larger freedom that encompasses all mankind.
  • Until the killing of black men, black mothers' sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother's son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens. (1964)
    • Grant, Joanne, film, Fundi: The Story of Ella Baker (Icarus Films, 1981)
  • The development of the individual to his highest potential for the benefit of the group.
    • The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader: documents, speeches and firsthand accounts from the Black Freedom Struggle, 1954–1990, ed. Clayborne Carson et al. (Penguin Books, 1991), p. 121.
  • Strong people do not need strong leaders.
  • "You didn't see me on television, you didn't see news stories about me," she told two writers, Ellen Cantarow and Susan Gushee O'Malley. "The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don't need strong leaders."
    • The New York Times, Obituary, by C. Gerald Fraser, December 17, 1986

1970 Interview in Black Women in White America: A Documentary History by Gerda Lerner[edit]

  • In my organizational work, I have never thought in terms of my "making a contribution." I just thought of myself as functioning where there was a need. And if I have made a contribution I think it may be that I had some influence on a large number of people.
  • As assistant field secretary of the branches of the NAACP, much of my work was in the South. At that time the NAACP was the leader on the cutting edge of social change. I remember when NAACP membership in the South was the basis for getting beaten up or even killed.
  • You would go into areas where people were not yet organized in the NAACP and try to get them more involved. Maybe you would start with some simple thing like the fact that they had no street lights, or the fact that in the given area somebody had been arrested or had been jailed in a manner that was considered illegal and unfair, and the like. You would deal with whatever the local problem was, and on the basis of the needs of the people you would try to organize them in the NAACP.
  • Black people who were living in the South were constantly living with violence. Part of the job was to help them to understand what that violence was and how they in an organized fashion could help to stem it. 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 even when it was perpetrated by the police or, in some instances, the state.
  • My basic sense of it has always been to get people to understand that in the long run they themselves are the only protection they have against violence or injustice.
  • People have to be made to understand that they cannot look for salvation anywhere but to themselves.
  • When the 1954 Supreme Court decision on school desegregation came, I was serving as chairman of the Educational Committee of the New York branch. We began to deal with the problems of de facto segregation, and the results of the de facto segregation which were evidenced largely in the achievement levels of black children, going down instead of going up after they entered public school.
  • I've never believed that the people really were willing and able to pay the price of integration. From a practical standpoint, anyone who looked at the Harlem area knew that the potential for integration per se was basically impossible unless there were some radically innovative things done. And those innovative things would not be acceptable to those who ran the school system, nor to communities, nor even to the people who call themselves supporters of integration.
  • I did a good deal of speaking, and I went to Queens, I went to the upper West side, and the people very eagerly said they wanted school integration. But when you raised the question of whether they would permit or would welcome Blacks to live in the same houses with them, which was the only practical way at that stage to achieve integration, they squirmed.
  • to me, when people themselves know what they are looking for and recognize that they can exercise some influence by action, that's progress.
  • after SNCC came into existence, of course, it opened up a new ear of struggle.
  • I have always felt it was a handicap for oppressed peoples to depend so largely upon a leader, because unfortunately in our culture, the charismatic leader usually becomes a leader because he has found a spot in the public limelight. It usually means he has been touted through the public media, which means that the media made him, and the media may undo him. There is also the danger in our culture that, because a person is called upon to give public statements and is acclaimed by the establishment, such a person gets to the point of believing that he is the movement. Such people get so involved with playing the game of being important that they exhaust themselves and their time, and they don't do the work of actually organizing people.
  • The movement of the '50's and '60's was carried largely by women, since it came out of church groups. It was sort of second nature to women to play a supportive role. How many made a conscious decision on the basis of the larger goals, how many on the basis of habit pattern, I don't know. But it's true that the number of women who carried the movement is much larger than that of men. Black women have had to carry this role, and I think the younger women are insisting on an equal footing.
  • From the standpoint of the historical pattern of the society, which seems to assume that this (supporting roles) is the best role for women, I think that certainly the young people who are challenging this ought to be challenging it, and it ought to be changed.
  • I think you have to have a certain sense of your own value, and a sense of security on your part, to be able to forgo the glamor of what the leadership role offers.
  • I have always thought what is needed is the development of people who are interested not in being leaders as much as in developing leadership among other people.
  • Every time I see a young person who has come through the system to a stage where he could profit from the system and identify with it, but who identifies more with the struggle of black people who have not had his chance, every time I find such a person I take new hope. I feel a new life as a result of

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