Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision

ISBN: 0807856169
ISBN 13: 9780807856161
By: Barbara Ransby

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About this book

One of the most important African American leaders of the twentieth century and perhaps the most influential woman in the civil rights movement, Ella Baker (1903-1986) was an activist whose remarkable career spanned fifty years and touched thousands of lives. A gifted grassroots organizer, Baker shunned the spotlight in favor of vital behind-the-scenes work that helped power the black freedom struggle. She was a national officer and key figure in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and a prime mover in the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Baker made a place for herself in predominantly male political circles that included W. E. B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, and Martin Luther King Jr., all the while maintaining relationships with a vibrant group of women, students, and activists both black and white. In this deeply researched biography, Barbara Ransby chronicles Baker's long and rich political career as an organizer, an intellectual, and a teacher, from her early experiences in depression-era Harlem to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Ransby shows Baker to be a complex figure whose radical, democratic worldview, commitment to empowering the black poor, and emphasis on group-centered, grassroots leadership set her apart from most of her political contemporaries. Beyond documenting an extraordinary life, the book paints a vivid picture of the African American fight for justice and its intersections with other progressive struggles worldwide across the twentieth century. One of the most important African American leaders of the twentieth century and perhaps the most influential woman in the civil rights movement, Ella Baker (1903-1986) was an activist whose remarkable career spanned fifty years and touched thousands of lives. In this deeply researched biography, Barbara Ransby chronicles Baker's long and rich political career as an organizer, an intellectual, and a teacher, from her early experiences in depression-era Harlem to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Ransby paints a vivid picture of the African American fight for justice and its intersections with other progressive struggles worldwide across the twentieth century.

Reader's Thoughts


I'm not sure if this is the book I want quite yet. I'm looking for a good book on Ella Baker.

Laura Taylor

great descriptions of her organizing style- useful!

Bryce Blilie

ELLA BAKER AND THE BLACK FREEDOM MOVEMENTNOVEMBER 22, 2013What, exactly, was democratic about Baker and the many hundreds that she worked with? A democracy, as John Dewey says, is having faith in other people to do the right thing at the right time. Ella Baker and the various organizations and organizers she worked with had this faith not just in African Americans, but in all the people of any race. There is simply no other reason for their efforts to equalize economically and politically across racial and class lines. They had faith that the poor could do great things if they had fair and just opportunities to do so. They had faith that African Americans were capable of leading the country in a better direction, if they were given a chance on equal footing. But they also had faith in the elite aristocracy’s ability to lead the nation, given in that their cause did not consistently advocate complete anarchy or move towards communism. Democracy was not the enemy, those who failed to practice it were. White supremacy, Jim Crowe, and the apartheid south were the enemy, not the founding principles of democracy.Ella was raised by her mother to know and understand class and race did not dictate overall intelligence and ability (pg.19). She spent time learning about democracy in Harlem against a backdrop of the Great Depression, and she advocated democracy and worked to break up the enemies of democracy by visiting the members of the NAACP people directly, spending time with them rather than just leading meetings in the town center. This indicates a true sincerity towards making change happen, not for herself, but for the people she worked so hard for. She worked for the betterment of race relations to make a better democratic republic.What unique contributions did Baker make to the burgeoning and diverse Black Freedom Movement? Baker had a unique background that allowed her to continue to practice what she preached when she obtained higher levels of status within the NAACP. Many leaders coming from poor or lower class roots changed once they were put in charge or obtained a leadership position. But because Baker was raised in a substantial middle-class black neighborhood (and would routinely outreach to poorer black neighborhoods) she was taught at an early age that a life of service is never completed. On page 209, a perfect Baker quote is cited, “I never worked for an organization but for a cause.” This speaks volumes about her true commitment to the organizations she worked with and for. Baker left the NAACP because she felt it was “falling short of its present possibilities” and “the full capacities of the staff have not been used” and “there is little chance of mine being utilized in the immediate future”. (pg.146) It was a resignation based on lack of focus on the true meaning of the organization, not one due to lack of advancement towards leadership.Can we call Baker a populist?Baker was a populist by proxy, because she didn’t advocate for all the poor all the time, but instead the African American poor most of the time, she was not advocating on behalf of the people. Populist beliefs are popular, and she was not in favor of pursuing the popular ideals at the time, such as the belief in white supremacy. As unjust and evil as the pursuits of racist ideals are, they were during her time popular. Baker did not need to be populist, Baker needed to be an advocate of an oppressed race of people in a democratic country. Baker perhaps, could not be a populist as it would undermine her efforts to bring justice and equal rights to a race of people who needed her. Baker’s life was a series of desperate situations brought on by years and decades – millennia even, of ignorance and wanton hate. Baker was not a populist because it was more important for her to focus on African Americans and equal rights.

LaDon Love

Great book on the movement and the influence of a woman named Ella Baker in developing the authentic voice and energy of young people in the civil rights movement.


Ella Baker! She was an amazing activist, and we could all learn so much from her...and by reading this book! It was an easy read, and packed full of information. A bit repetitive at points, but definitely worthy of about 4.5 stars.


Loved learned about Ella Baker and her role in the Black Freedom movement. She was a visionary for civil rights and for women's rights--one that we don't often hear about.

James Tracy

Really one of my favorite history books. Not enough people know about the legacy of this great freedom-fighter. Many of her lessons are extremely relevant to today's activists.


Reading about her life has given me much to think about in terms of how to make connections between causes and groups. Her insistence on empowering those directly affected is one that resonates with me deeply given the work I do and want to do.


Agree w other reviewers. WRiting is OK.topic is riveting. Ella Baker is amongst the most important Americans since 1930. Tirelessly helping others speak up and find courage. Mostly AFrican American organizing, and one person said, "she taught us white folks too." NAACP, SNCC, spiritual and organizational mother of the civil rights movement. Learn from Ella Mae


Really great. Though I am rarely, if ever, a fan of historical biographies, this was riveting both because it was about a pretty awesome lady (Ella Baker) whose influence in the Civil Rights Movement is overlooked for various reasons and because Ransby really does well with moving between in-depth personal biography and a more broad historical and social analysis. It's long, but it goes quickly.


interesting look at the life of someone who did so much for Civil Rights, but received little credit. I enjoyed the examination of grass roots vs. leader-led action.


FABULOUS book!!!!!!!!! What an incredible woman!!!!!!!!!


Great read about one of the foremost female strategists of the American Civil Rights Movement.


For decades, the name of Ella Baker has lingered along the margins of my thinking about the intersection of popular education disposition and political organizing processes. When the question of an radical democratic practice indigenous to the United States, I would consistently cite Myles Horton, Grace Lee Boggs, Ella Baker and the numerous radical pedagogy practices in the Black Freedom Movement. Call it a prejudice of theory, I never took the time to actually research Baker's life in much detail due to the simple fact that unlike most radical pedagogues, Baker never wrote a book to codify her ideas. A search of the library index will reveal many books about the civil rights movement and SNCC in particular that have a dedicated chapter on Baker. But with the exception of Joanne Grant's "Ella Baker: Freedom Bound" from 1998, there's been no thorough and exhaustive study of Baker's life and thought. This fact is all the more startling considering how many generations of organizers, educators, and radical intellectuals have attributed to Baker the status of architect (or master weaver) of the civil rights movement and participatory democracy in the United States. Barbara Ransby's 2003 intellectual biography of Baker seeks to correct that omission. As I read Ransby's book I consistently confronted my own prejudices about what constitutes political theory. For better or for worse, I feel like I have been trained to only recognize political thought when it is presented as a set of abstract political theoretical propositions. Of course, as has been argued for decades, this model of knowledge invariable privileges very specific experiences and histories, specifically a European male perspective. But more than that, such models of political thought reproduce the prioritizing of thought and ideas over experience and practice -- in other words, the Eurological model of political thought breaks the dialectic inherent to praxis. Ransby treads the fine line between providing a detailed account of Ella Baker's life and drawing from that life the lessons of a lived radical democracy. I say all of this because it occurs to be that in an age where radical thought grows increasingly sterile, "Ella Baker & the Black Freedom Movement" is probably one of the most important books on political theory I have ever read. The fact that it in everyway departs from the model of contemporary radical philosophy demonstrates the urgency of its argument; that theory and lived experience need to be in dialogue if our ideas are to have any meaningful consequence in the world. A central theme of Ransby's book is the profound dissymmetry between Baker's vision of democratic action and the orientations of the mainstream civil rights leadership. Here Ransby is able to fully develop the now-famous philosophical opposition between Martin Luther King Jr. and Ella Baker. Based on the notion of "racial uplift", King and the civil rights leadership were convinced that the protagonist of the movement needed to be the black middle class. Accepting the American ideology of petite bourgeois respectability, organizations like the NAACP and SCLC presented an image of black middle class demanding their rights. The voice of that demand, therefore, would come from the clergy; a strata of black society that tended to have greater access to education and middle class opportunity. It was no accident that a leadership based the clergy would also equate civil rights struggle with patriarchy. Baker, however, argued for a different model of protagonism. Ransby locates Baker's early life as deeply informed by the role of women missionaries in the black church. While often middle class themselves, these women functioned entirely differently from the male clergy. For these women, the work of the church bound together the personal social circles of women, providing for the needs of poor in the community, and advocating for the poor within the power structures of the community. As Baker matured in the fulcrum of the Harlem Renaissance and the subsequent Great Depression, her own worldview moved further away from a notion of charity to a radical understanding of the poor as protagonists in their own struggles. Never confused about her own identifications, Baker then saw her role as an organizer and educator as one who identified and nurtured the fighting spirit and democratic possibilities within the lives of the poor. As a consequence of this position, solidarity assumes a different structure from that of "racial uplift." Seen as rich in experience and political analysis, the poor no longer need the middle class to speak for them. The organizer, instead, learns to be silence, to ask questions, to listen, and to bring resources and networks to the communities in the closest proximity to the violence of racial and economic exploitation. As Ransby demonstrates over and again, a politics built upon the protagonism of the poor has implications beyond a class analysis of racism. It demands a different practice and analysis of gender from middle class normativity. Here we see how Baker's life exemplified this fact. It is no accident that in the context of SNCC, the organization where Baker had the most influence institutionally, the leadership role of women was unparalleled by any other national civil rights organization. Ransby's biography of Baker contains many other thematic gems useful for a theory of political organizing. But beyond theory, perhaps the book makes its greatest impact in how it suggests a different way of being in the world. Over and again Ransby stresses how for Baker a movement exists as a web of personal social relationships. Those relationships span decades as ever changing constellations of organizations and resources consistently return to the same networks of friends and tender comrades. Baker eschewed partisanship in the midst of cold war terror (sometimes with more or less consistency). For her, the only partisanship worth adhering to was the movement itself. And here, the movement for Baker was always a class-based understanding of racism and struggle. The liberation of the poor meant the liberation of all. The aim of the struggle, as Ransby argues, was to understand the historical basis of exclusion. Organizing did not mean simple halting those exclusions but to reverse them. Such a reversal suggested not only the destruction of the white power structure. It also meant the end of middle class privilege and arrogance.

Thomas Flowers

There isn't much to say that hasn't already been said in this list of reviews. I will say however, is on the importance Ella Baker played in sustaining the Civil Rights Movement down in Dixie. Baker's strong preference to "build upon the work others are doing," is the fundamental creed of SNCC and how voter registration and direct action protests were made successful; through building upon leadership within the community and simply providing the means for success. A lot of academic attention has been given to the "big boys" of the SCLC, but a grassroots history shows us something contrary to pop history. Sure, movements need charismatic leaders, but without a base, without the community, the movement would have sputtered and failed to gain the traction it needed during the 50's and 60's. Building upon the community is a large part of Baker's story and historian Barbara Ransby has done a superb job bringing the Ella Baker's light to a larger audience.

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