Ella Baker by Carrie Gibson

By in Human Rights, Leadership


“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. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you can change that system. That is easier said than done.” – Ella Baker


Ella Josephine Baker: Lifetime 

Ella Josephine Baker was one of the most inspiring leaders in history. She spent most of her time as an activist working behind the scenes to organize the Civil Rights Movement. She was born in 1903 in Norfolk, Virginia. She graduated from Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1927. Her work for the Civil Rights Movement didn’t begin till she moved to Harlem during the 1930s. In 1938 she joined the NAACP’s staff, which would soon become the foundation of the Civil Rights Movement. But in 1946 she reduced her involvement and responsibilities with the NAACP in order to work on integration in New York City’s public school system. Baker then went on to create the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957 and recruited Martin Luther King Jr. But Ella only worked as the acting director of the organization for two terms because she clashed with King. Ella felt as if King controlled too much and empowered others too little. But then in 1960 Ella Baker came back once again, this time starting with student activists, starting the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. This organization gave young blacks a major role in the Civil Rights Movement. After that Baker finally returned to New York in 1964 and worked for human rights till she died. Ella Baker inspired many people to make a change, thats what makes her such a historical leader.





Leadership Style

   Ella Baker was more of a “behind the scenes” type of leader. Her style of leadership was silent, she motivated people not by words but by action. She inspired people by being a role model. When people followed Ella Baker, it’s because they wanted to be like her, and she would never have to say a word. Ella Baker lead by example, thats what made her one of the greatest leaders of her time. 

Her type of leadership is better known as Collective Leadership. Whats meant by collective leadership is “exercising influence as part of a community of equals in which every person contributes a distinctive, indispensable voice to the whole, while also standing strong with others in support of mutually agreed goals.” (Preskill, 95). Baker was more interested in developing leaders than being known for her own leadership achievements.




Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)

   On February 21, 1960 there was a group of African American college students from North Carolina A&T University that were denied service in Woolworths lunch counter in Greensboro. Those college students refused to leave until served. After the Greensboro sit-ins Ella Baker left the SCLC because she wanted to assist the new student activists. Baker viewed the young activists as a resource and asset to the movement. In April 1960, she organized a meeting at Shaw University for the student leaders of the sit-ins. That meeting led to the birth of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In 1961 SNCC members joined activists from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to organize the Freedom Rides. Then in 1964 SNCC also helped create Freedom Summer


 Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)

 In January 1957, Baker traveled to Atlanta Georgia to attend a conference  that aimed at developing a new regional organization. After the second conference in February, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was formed. At first his organization was planned to be a loosely structured coalition linking church based leaders in the civil rights movement across the south. This organization wanted to emphasize nonviolence as a way of bringing about social progress and racial justice for Africans Americans in the South. The conferences first project was the Crusade for Citizenship, a voter registration campaign. Baker had been working closely with southern civil rights activists in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. Ms. Baker was well known for her organizing abilities. 


National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)

Ella Baker started her association with the NAACP in 1938. She was then hired as a secretary in 1940. Baker traveled to many places, especially in the South. She recruited members, raised money and organized local events. Then in 1943 she went on to be named the director of branches, which made her the highest ranking women in the organization. Ella was the type of person that believed and organization grew from the bottom up and not the top down. She very much stressed the importance of young adults and women in this organization.

When Baker traveled through the South on the job, she met hundreds of African Americans and created lasting and enduring relationships with each one. She slept in their homes, ate at their tables, spoke in their churches and left thank you notes. That was the great thing a bout Ella Baker, her personalized approach to political work. That aspect worked very well for her and helped her recruit more members into the NAACP. Another aspect that helped her during recruiting, was her ability to treat everyone with respect.

But then in 1964 Baker had to leave her position at the NAACP in order to care for her niece in New York City, but she still remained a volunteer. Soon after, she joined the New York branch of the NAACP in order to work on desegregation and police brutality issues. Then in 1952 Baker become the President of the organization.  But then a year later in 1953, she resigned in order to run (unsuccessfully) for the New York City council 


   Ella Baker had been the behind the scenes leader for Kings movement, they say that she was the backbone of the whole thing. But I think Baker should’ve stepped forward along side King, not had been behind the scene all the time. If she had done so, it would have also been another step forward not only for the Civil Rights Movement but for Women’s Rights as well. If Ella Baker had stepped forward during the King movement, she would’ve also motivated other women leaders to do so. That’s the one thing i didn’t agree with when it comes to Ms. Baker. If she was the backbone of Kings movement, she should’ve been able to claim more credit than she had been given. 


Aprele Elliott. “Journal of Black Studies.” Sage Publications, Inc. May, 1996. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2784885

Brookfield, Stephen, and Stephen Preskill. Learning as a Way of Leading: Lessons from the Struggle for Social Justice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009. Print. (95-99)

Charles, Payne. “Signs.” The University of Chicago Press. 2014. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3174689 

Dallard, Shyrlee. Ella Baker: A Leader behind the Scenes. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Silver Burdett, 1990. Print.

deLaure, Marilyn Bordwell. “Women’s Studies in Communication.” Organization for Research on Women and Communication. 2008.

Grant, Joanne. Ella Baker: Freedom Bound. New York: Wiley, 1998. Print.

Sullivan, Lisa. “Social Policy: Ella Baker.” December 1, 1999.


About the Author


  My names Carolyn Gibson, I’m a freshman at Wagner College in Staten Island, New York. Even though i go to school in New York my real home is Orlando, Florida. The main reason i decided to go to school up north was due to tennis. I choose Ella Baker because i can kind of relate to her as a leader. Her style of leading was more behind the scene, silent, lead by example kind of thing. Thats how i am, i’m not one of those real loud loves making speeches type of leader. Neither was Ella, but she still became one of the greatest leaders of her time, thats what inspires me about her.