This is a excellent book on the life and work of Ella Baker and the Civil Rights Movement. How the raw energy of young people can be both nutured and given guidance.Tinea
A biography of Ella Baker. A history of the Civil Rights Movements from the NAACP in the 1940s to the SCLC in the 50s to the very founding of SNCC in the 1960s. A guidebook for grassroots, challenging, empowering activism. I fucking adore this woman, her philosophy that extended beyond any single organization, her unwavering commitment to the liberation of people by the people themselves, and her years of dedicated behind the scenes activism and organizing to enable all this fucking shit to go down! Ella Baker is a hero. Joanne Grant, the author of this bio, gets mad props not just for recognizing the phenomenal, often hidden organizing by Miss Baker and publicizing it so the world would not overlook the incredible contributions Baker made to so many major moments in the Freedom struggle, but also for elucidating the radical ideology that pervades all of her work.In the NAACP and the SCLC (Martin Luther King's organization), Baker's was the voice of mass organizing, the dissident force pushing against charismatic, intellectual leaders, urging them to let the people lead. She backed up her words with months of hard travel on Jim Crow roads to get out to meet, listen to, offer guidance to, and form close relationships with African American people living throughout the rural South. When she eventually quit the NAACP because she felt its leadership was too concentrated, there was a general uproar from the local chapters, who claimed Baker was the only NAACP staff who they knew; to many, she was the only reason they needed that organization. Baker felt that local people knew best what affected their particular locality and should therefore be the ones deciding their chapter's priorities and funding needs. She saw a use for national organizations-- indeed, almost always worked for them-- but seemed to use them as tools to get resources to local organizers and as networks to spread ideas and energy (and sometimes volunteers) out to other locally-based, contextualized struggles. She advocated for "group-centered leadership" and against "leadership centered groups" (p. 123).Baker was always prepared to do the shit work that enables a movement to move. During the Freedom Rides, Baker did legal support, asking protesters if they'd told their parents and if they were prepared for "jail-no-bail." She pushed for education and leadership trainings. She fought her own organizations for basics like office space and clear job descriptions. A. Philip Randolph explained, "Ella has the unique quality of having the necessary sense of struggle for an oppressed people to achieve the alleviation of oppression, and at the same time she is capable of understanding certain principles of organizing that are necessary to achieve an objective. Many militants don't understand that. They think that part of militancy is to disregard organized procedure" (p.111). By creating explicit methods of communication and process, Baker made participation in the movement more accessible to a wider range of people. She emphasized that meeting the material and emotional needs of activists make for capable activists. When waves of students began sit-in campaigns across the South, Baker immediately saw the potential and strength of these youth. She was totally inspired, and yet is recalled by so many in the movement as their inspiration and support. Baker quickly began organizing with student strikers, and somehow managed to be quietly in the background (often not quietly-- but never overpowering) at all of the organizing meetings and strategy sessions that eventually became SNCC. When older movement organizers grew concerned that SNCC was getting too radical, Baker's own radical politics rooted her the evolving movement.Realize, all of this with bombs going off in Movement people's homes and churches. Horrible lynchings, mob violence against Black people, arson in the spaces they inhabited, politicized or not. Economic violence-- blacklisting against employment as a slow death. Student volunteers to register people to vote were getting shot at; some were murdered. These were all people with whom Ella Baker worked and formed close ties. Baker lived through, witnessed, and comforted the victims of extreme violence-- and the daily violences, the consuming oppression. When a bomb exploded in Louisiana and organizers decided to put out a statement demanding an inquiry from the federal government, Baker waited patiently for the local office-- the one that was bombed-- to regroup, recover, and issue the statement themselves, rather than simply drafting it herself 'in their words'. Grant calls this "a subtlety in terms of organizing, an Ella Baker specialty." Always, meeting people on a human level, demonstrating that it is their participation that makes a movement liberatory, the means are the ends.Roger Bailey
I am not a really big fan of biography. I am interested in history, though, and I am more interested in some historical periods than others. The civil rights movement is a part of history that I do have a pretty strong interest in and especially the civil rights movement in the 1960s. This biography of Ella Baker is a book of history on just that subject. She was born in 1903 and was an early member of the NAACP and all of that history is covered, but the narration becomes a good deal more detailed when the book reaches the late 1950s and the decade of the 1960s. It covers the founding of the SCLC and the SNCC too. Altogether it was quite interesting and educational. My criticism is that it just touches on and skims over the influence of communists on the civil rights movement. I happen to think that is an underrated aspect of the movement that is all too often swept under the rug and this book does its part to sweep the communist participation under the rug too even if it does barely acknowledge it.Pia
Another tribute to Baker I have put on my "must-read" list.