Ella Baker: Strong Leaders

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Ella Baker was a Civil Rights organizer who was behind the scenes—organizing!—for most of the important organizations of the 1950s and 1960s. She critiqued not only racism in America but also the sexism that she faced within the Civil Rights movement. She also felt, and showed through her work, that the key to movements are strong people organizing themselves, rather than messianic leaders. As she was known to say: “strong people don’t need strong leaders.” 

She was born in Norfolk, VA, in 1903, and from an early age learned about American racism through stories that her grandmother told her about life as an enslaved person. Her interest in social justice was put into action when she moved to Harlem after college, and she began to work in and for many organizations and projects: as an assistant at the Negro National News, and a co-founder of the Young Negroes Cooperative League, at the Worker’s Education Project of the Works Progress Administration. Eventually she came to work for the NAACP, as a secretary, and rose through the ranks until she was the Director of Branches and then President of the New York chapter. 

The most important phase of her career was when she returned to the south and was one of the first organizers (and the first employee!) of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Eventually finding this organization too personality-driven, she went on to help with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which she felt more honestly embraced her vision of radical participatory democracy based on community organizing. She would help steer this organization through its triumphs such as the sit-in movement, the Freedom Rides, and eventually large-scale voter registration projects. She finally ended up challenging the segregationist Democratic Party at the 1964 Convention through her Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Ella’s story shows us that strong people, working together, can accomplish more than any movement that relies on top-down, charismatic leadership.

We honor Ella Baker's fight for voting rights across the South with a change in our donation plan. All proceeds from the Ella Baker: Strong People shirt will be donated to Black Voters Matter, which is engaged in the critical work of registering voters of color across the US, and especially in the lead-up to the Jan. 5 Senate run-offs in Georgia.