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Ella Baker and the struggle for civil rights
The evolution of an activist

Review by Sam Jordan | October 31, 2003 | Page 9

Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and The Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. University of North Carolina Press, 2003, 544 pages, $34.95.

ALTHOUGH ELLA Baker was a founding member some of the civil rights movement's most prominent organizations, her contribution is little known. Barbara Ransby remedies this in her book Ella Baker and The Black Freedom Movement, which documents Baker's political evolution from student activist to a pivotal leader in the Black emancipation struggle.

The brutality of Jim Crow segregation and the vivid memory of slavery shaped Baker's political consciousness. She was the granddaughter of former slaves, and her paternal grandparents were poor sharecroppers.

But her maternal grandparents were a Reconstruction success story, owning their own farm. The contradictions of her family's poverty and privilege instilled in Baker a sense of empathy for the poor and a passion for social justice.

In the decade after the First World War, thousands of Southern Blacks migrated to urban centers in the North in search of a better life. Baker was among them. Fortunate to receive a college education, Baker was groomed to live a middle class life as a teacher. Her search for a teaching post brought her to Harlem in 1927.

The Great Depression and the subsequent upsurge in working-class struggle in the 1930s changed the political landscape of the U.S., and Harlem was no exception. In Baker's words, Harlem was "a hotbed of radical thinking."

Throughout the biography, Ransby points out how the grassroots struggles of the 1930s left their imprint on Baker, and how, in later years, her desire to build bottom-up organizations often put her at odds with other civil rights leaders. But while Ransby makes much of Baker's openness to socialist ideas--her support of Communist Party campaigns in the 1930s, such the defense of the Scottsboro Boys--she glosses over Baker's involvement in the communist purge of the NAACP during the 1950s.

Baker was hired as field organizer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1940. The McCarthyite witch-hunt of the late 1940s and early 1950s sent a chill through the U.S. left--and many activists yielded to the pressure of the government's Cold War hysteria, and wrongly, turned on one other.

For conservative leaders in the labor movement and the civil rights movement, anti-communism became the rationale to marginalize radicals who were in their way. "[A]t it's annual convention in Boston, in June [1950], the NAACP formally barred communists from membership and following the lead of the CIO...proceeded to purge leftists from its ranks," writes Ransby. "This undemocratic stance was partly a defensive capitulation to virulent red-baiting that was quickly permeating the political culture.

"At the same time, it was a continuation and deepening of longstanding tensions between the policies of the dominant leadership and the leftist politics of other antiracist activists, including some who were also NAACP members." Although Baker was politically to the left of the NAACP leadership, she sat on the witch-hunt committee of the organization, the Internal Review Committee.

She was also a member the Liberal Party, whose leaders collaborated with the anti-communist House Un-American Activities Committee. Ransby offers no justification for why Baker participated in the Internal Review Committee, though she does reveal that Baker regretted that decision in later years. Baker's regrets aside, she made a political judgment that deserves criticism.

In the years Baker organized for the NAACP, its membership mushroomed, but disagreements with the NAACP's national president Walter White forced Baker to resign in 1946. She felt the organization should allow its membership to direct the activities of the organization, not the leadership. White did not agree. According to Ransby, this would be a recurring problem for Baker.

She became the field organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) in 1957. Impressed by the Montgomery Bus boycott, she hoped the SCLC would work to develop what she called "indigenous leadership" in the South, focus on building bases in the community, and maintain its activist orientation.

She often butted heads with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on this issue. She felt that the ministers marshaled too much control over the direction of the movement.

When college students began sit-ins at lunch counters across the South, Baker argued that the SCLC should help to organize them. It was Baker who called the first meeting of what would become the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Her desire to organize everyday Black Southerners became a reality through SNCC. Freedom Summer, a massive voter registration drive coordinated by SNCC, led to the development of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP).

The MFDP was formed to challenge the racist Dixiecrats who controlled the Democratic Party machine in Mississippi. They ran their own candidates for national office and they confronted the all-white Mississippi delegation at the Democratic Party National Convention in 1964. More importantly they developed a leadership within the communities of the rural South.

Baker herself felt that the most important organizing she did was with SNCC and the MFDP. She remained an activist until her death in 1986. Ella Baker and The Black Freedom Struggle is a thoughtful and fascinating look at the development of a political leader. Any one who wants to know more about the civil rights movement should pick it up.

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