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blic education, to extend the commission on civil rights, to prevent discri

poses. Be it enacted by the senate and house of representatives of the uni

2004 of the revised statutes (42 u.s.c. 1971), As amended by section 131

stat. 90), Is further amended as (a) insert “1” after “(a)” in subsection (a

in determining whether any individual is qualified under state law or law

rocedures applied under such law or laws to other individuals within the s

the right of any individual to title i--voting rights vote in any federal elect

site to voting, if such error or omission is not material in determining w

ve days of the submission of his request made within the period of time d

1960 (42 u.S.C. 1974--74E; 74 stat. 88): Provided, however, that the attor

nance of such tests in accordance with the provisions of applicable state

ts for persons who are blind or otherwise physically handicapped, meet t

ella baker

‘vote’ shall have the same meaning as in subsection (e) of this section;“(b

mmediately following the period at the end of the first sentence of subse

sumption that any person who hasstrength not been adjudged an incompetent a in numbers

district of columbia, or the commonwealth of puerto rico where partinstructio II

ella baker

ella baker strength in number s part II

free agent in the civil rights movement

aprele elliott Hills Publishing

Copyright Š 2013 by Aprele Elliot All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. Ella Baker: Free Agent in the Civil Rights Movement by: Aprele Elliott Printed in the United States of America First Printing, 2013 ISBN 0-9000000-0-0 Hills Publishing San Francisco, Ca Colophon: Primary Typeface Baskerville. Transitional Typeface designed by John Baskerville (1706-1775)


06 12 16 22 28 36 42 46


the charismatic paradigm

roots of an activist

baker: montgomer y station

sexism and the black church

group centered leadership

student power

we are all leaders




he marginal and all-too-sporadic examination of women in the chronicles of the civil rights movement has been curiously misrepresented. Both African American women and men struggled against oppression to obtain rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and to challenge the fundamental racist assumptions of White America. This article examines the role of Ella Baker in the civil rights movement. Some called her “Fundi,” a teacher of great wisdom. Others called her “Mama Baker” (Grant, 1981). She was held in high esteem by dozens of civil rights activists, yet her contributions have been largely ignored. The all too frequent absence of women in the rhetorical body and theory of the movement render said studies bankrupt. That Black women were agents


of change and fought valiantly on all fronts is a compelling truth that must be acknowledged rhetorically. An examination of two factors helps explain a narrow construct imposed on women rendering them virtually invisible to all but regional audiences and movement insiders: sexism within and outside of the movement and the monolithic paradigm imposed on the movement. Two competing models are central to this discussion: an exclusive model rooted in the traditional charismatic perspective of leadership and an inclusive model anchored in the viability of group-centered leadership. This article examines Baker’s activism and her critique of the traditional model. ella baker : introduction


She resisted the charismatic impulse embodies so dramatically in the person of Martin Luther King, Jr., and she rejected the hierarchical model that relegates women to positions as servants. Her model has value for feminist modes of analysis because it empowers both women and men. The study of women as agents of change in the civil rights movement has serious ramifications for theories of rhetorical action derivative of incomplete civil rights histories. To get a broader picture of the role of rhetoric in the movement, it is essential to look at the challenge presented by Baker.



the charismatic paradigm


charismatic theory of movements suggests that the masses are committed to leaders because they identify with their visions. Morris (1984) argues that charismatic leadership alone cannot explain the protest movement. He points to the fact that charisma resides in the Black church and is an integral part of the expectations and experiences of African Americans. The civil rights movement gave charismatic expression room to grow and refocused content. Morris’s concept of movement centers helps us to better understand the complexities of protest movements. It is a configuration of


resources and activists connected to community institutions and programs and strategies that facilitate and sustain protest. Baker was one who negotiated the terrain between centers and facilitated group alliances, bringing with her the cumulative knowledge and experience of decades of activism.

ella baker : the charismatic paradigm



roots of an activist


graduate of Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, Baker arrived in New York City with a thirst for knowledge-and a mission­ary zeal. She bypassed the expected career of teaching and became a participant observer of the Harlem Renaissance. Harlem was a Mecca for artists, intellectuals, and activists. Baker attended group discussions and debates that considered the merits of socialism and communism and the road to equity for African Americans. “Wherever there was a discussion, I’d go. It didn’t matter if it was all men, maybe I was the only woman.... New York was the hotbed of radical thinking” (quoted in Dallard, 1990, p. 32). During the depression, Baker collaborated with George Schulyer, a well-known journalist


of the day, who confronted bigotry through the press. He and Baker established the Young Negroes Cooperative League, a food program designed to help Blacks increase their buying power. When Baker came to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1938, she worked as an assistant field secretary. She worked her way across the South, persuading ordinary folks that they could make extraordinary changes in their lives. It must be noted that, at that time, the act of joining the NAACP was a punishable act in many areas. Many were fearful, and rightfully so. Opportunities to address potential recruits were found in the church. Her success in these endeavors is testament to her powerful public speaking skills. The psychological barriers ella baker : roots of an activist


to protest in any form were quite formidable-generations of Blacks, many of whom had suffered the brutality of Whites at little provocation. So, sometimes as little as 3 minutes after church service, she would make her appeal to the congregation (Dallard, 1990). Baker insisted that people help themselves and discover solu­tions to problems. She abandoned the traditional NAACP strategy of appealing to the professional ranks and the notion that the “talented tenth� would lead the masses. She wanted regular folks to become involved and wanted programs created to challenge people to begin helping themselves. Baker later became director of branches and president of the New York City branch of the NAACP. In 1955, the mayor of New York City asked her to serve 22

on the Commission on School Integration. Baker called meetings all over the city and encouraged parents to sign petitions protesting segre­gation in the school system. Baker’s philosophy was “power to the people. ”She believed that, through combined effort and inner strength, the people could accom­plish much She insisted that nobody was going to do for people what they had the power to do but had failed to accomplish themselves.

ella baker : roots of an activist



baker: montgomer y station


aker worked with Rosa Parks in the Montgomery NAACP office on a Leadership Conference project. The program was designed to develop leadership skills in local NAACP members. Problem-solving skills were honed, and participants were encour­aged to discover solutions to community problems. Parks is sometimes referred to as the mother of the civil rights movement. Her refusal to vacate a seat on the bus for a White passenger sparked the Montgomery bus boycott and the modem civil rights. The actions of Parks and the subsequent massive boycott of the Montgomery Bus System, coordinated most vigorously by JoAnn Gibson Robinson and the Women’s Political Council and longtime labor activist E. D. Nixon and others, precipitated a change in


protest strategies. The contributions of Robinson are important to note. Her claim that she started the idea of the boycott cannot be easily dismissed (Robinson, 1987). During her presidency of the Women’s Political Council, atrocities suffered by African Americans on the bus system was a major focus. Dubbed “Joan of Arc, of the boycott, Robinson’s tremendous energy and faith galvanized middle class women into a force that was the backbone of the boycott (Burks, 1990). This, coupled with Montgomery’s African American citizens, desire for prompt and substantial change in daily life, made Montgomery a citadel of change. The Montgomery Improvement Association’s 381-day boycott generated expenses. Baker entered the scene again. Together with A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Stanley ella baker : montgomery station


Levinson, Baker formed In Friendship, based in New York City. The group schedu1ed events to raise money for the Montgomery effort. The Montgomery victory and the Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate transportation convinced Baker that the time was ideal for continuing protest activities. King thought that it was normal to have a lull after a major success. Baker believed that critical moments were evaporating and that King had failed to seize the opportunities. Levinson, Rustin, and King developed seven work­ing papers: “Southern Negro Leaders Conference on Transporta­tion and Nonviolence. These working paper’s were a starting point for what would become the Southern Christian Leadership Con­ference (SCLC). It was Baker 28

who sent out the call, and more than 60 ministers were in attendance. The SCLC was a confederation of established ‘and newly formed organizations. The central core of the planning board was comprised of clergy only. Baker reveals, “I knew from the beginning that as a woman, an older woman, in a group of ministers who were largely as supporters, there was no place for me to come into a leadership role. The competition wasn’t worth it” (quoted in Lerner, 1972, p. 347).

ella baker : montgomery station



sexism and the black church


aker served as associate director of the SCLC, which translated into running the day-to-day organization of the office, and she later served as acting executive director. Emphasis must be placed on the term “acting’’ given that Baker was non clergy and never was considered as the legitimate leader. Her status was also precarious because she found herself at odds with the ministers due to their unwillingness to outline job descriptions and thereby provide a solid organizational base. In addition, the treatment of female staffers was obviously chauvinist. Secretaries were expected to work considerably longer hours than were ministers, who were held to a much more flexible work schedule (Morris, 1984, p. 113).


The attitudes of Black male clergy echoed the prevailing senti­ments of their secular brethren Cone (1991) insists that the most “glaring” and “detrimental” failure of King and Malcolm X was the failure to critique sexism within and without the movement. He notes that their attitudes were “unduly insensitive” to the escalating women’s movement. In King’s record of his arrest in Albany, Georgia, males are referred to by name and title. Women are referred to as ‘’ladies”-in effect, a nameless, faceless mass. The tendency to view the civil rights movement as a monolithic entity with but a few bright stars at the helm is appealing to our sense of drama and facilitates images, albeit sometimes superficial in na­ture. The civil rights movement was a church-based movement. The imprint is undeniable. ella baker : sexism and the black church


The preacher’s primary authority is ecclesiastical. However, political decision-making is in his domain. His authority is buttressed by an exclusive circle of trustees and deacons. Women traditionally provided financial and emotional support and were expected to keep on top of the day-to-day man­agement of the church. King, following traditional Black church policy in his “Recommendations to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church for the Fiscal Year 1954-1955,’’ declared that his authority was conferred by God and the congregation and that “the leadership never ascends from the pew to the pulpit” (quoted in Cone, 1991, p. 34). Wyatt Walker, a King intimate and the executive director of the SCLC following the term of Baker, makes two important revela­tions: (a) Baker was never considered for executive 34

director be­cause she was not part of the clergy and (b) she did not make an outward display of her religious beliefs (Grant, 1981). The latter confession is instructive. Non-demonstrative women were suspect. The civil rights struggle not only challenged White supremacy, but brought into question male privilege. The sports metaphor is useful here. The behind-the-scenes meet­ings of the powers-the White power structure and African Ameri­can male leaders-were opportunities for men to exercise their assertiveness with executive, corporate, and political elites on the playing field. The ”Big Six”(i.e., Rustin, Wilkins, Abernathy, King, Randolph, and Young) was an expression of the male-dominated sports model such as the “Big Ten.” The March on ella baker : sexism and the black church


Washington was planned as a sort of “Super Bowl� of protest activities. As late as 1 week before the march, not one woman was listed as a dias participant. A few women were added as an afterthought (Giddings, 1984).





g roup-centered leader ship

ella baker : group centered leadership



nother source of contention was in leadership philosophies. The SCLC ministers thought the movement would run best with a charismatic leader. Baker supported group-centered leadership. She believed that natural resistance already exists and that no person wants to be set up. To her way of thinking, strong people did not need strong leaders. Baker was of the opinion that the media make leaders and can undo them. Mueller (1990) isolates three important implications of Baker’s concept of participatory democracy (the appeal to grassroots): the involvement of people throughout society in decisions that control their lives, minimization of hierarchy, and a call for direct actions as an answer to fear (p. 52). Baker was committed to the idea that everyone


should be prepared to take on leadership to effect change in their lives. She demonstrated this philosophy in her attempts to consciously and consistently develop and use programs that, at their core, encouraged an inclusive model of leadership. An advocate of citizenship schools, she encouraged the SCLC to recognize the importance of adult education in preparing African Americans to fully exercise their rights in a democratic society. It is noteworthy, therefore, to discuss her relationship with the Highlander Folk School (HFS) during the 1950s. Founded by Myles Horton in 1938 as an adult learning center, HFS evolved into a center for labor studies and union training and later into a training ground for civil rights activists. Both Baker and Parks attended HFS, where women were ella baker : group centered leadership


expected to harness their leadership potential. Baker was one of the featured speakers there. From the school’s inception, African Americans were welcomed as speakers and on the board of directors. HFS brought together many people from varying stages of consciousness and activism. Together with Septima Clark and Esau Jenkins, Horton developed a citizenship program that nurtured freethinking and encouraged students to abandon traditional strategies in favor of creative problem solving. The roster of HFS participants includes James Bevel, John Lewis, and Diane Nash, key members of the Student Nonviolent Coordi­nating Committee (SNCC). It is significant to note that Parks attended HFS just 4 months before her arrest for refusing to give up her seat on the bus. 42


student power


n 1960, students from the Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro, North Carolina, staged a sit-in at a local store. This action thrust students into the forefront of the movement. The actions of the students provided the movement with a surge of vitality. Baker realized the importance of student activism, and, with money from the SCLC and the facilities from her alma mater at Shaw University, called together more than 300 students for the Southwide Student Leadership Conference on Nonviolent Resistance to Segregation. The name would later be changed to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Conference (Morris, 1984, p. 214). Baker believed that the students should form their own independent civil rights


organization as opposed to becoming an arm of the SCLC or the NAACP. The students welcomed her support for their independence. Indeed, Baker’s influence on the SNCC may very well be her most important contribution. Baker had enough clout and resolve to resist the overtures of King and others. Baker urged students to analyze the entire society’s racist structure and to consider the merits of a group-centered leadership perspective.

ella baker : student power



we are all leader s


aker was fond of using the Socratic method. She asked questions and the students discovered answers. They debated for hours, and meetings could last for days. If someone remained quiet for too long, Baker would engage the person in conversation and then announce to the group that he or she had something to say. The students trusted her because, rather than dictate policy, Baker guided them to solutions. She spoke their language (Dallard, 1990). When the organization debated the merits of a voter registration drive versus direct action, Baker suggested that-they tactics. Her knowledge of people and resources was especially helpful to students who needed to connect with organizations and families in the South.


The work of the SNCC in Mississippi was influenced by Baker. Robert Moses, a member of the SNCC, developed a group-centered model of community activism that was replicated in towns throughout Mississippi. Local leaders and citizens were imbued with a spirit of pretest and taught strategies for change. Freedom schools were formed at which children and adults were exposed to African American history and were taught basic academic skills. The Mississippi Summer Project made headway in voter registra足tion as well. The progress was not without terrible costs. Three volunteers-Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney-were murdered. Countless Black Mississippians were targets for violent White backlash. ella baker : we are all leaders


The leadership initiative also spawned the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). Its mission was to combat the disen足franchisement of Blacks who were systematically excluded from participating in the state Democratic Party. Baker helped run a clearinghouse in Washington, D.C., to help build support for a group that was bound to run into massive resistance. At the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the MFDP and Fannie Lou Hamer argued that the all-White representation of the official Mississippi was in fact non-represen足tative of the citizens of the state. The exacting case presented to the convention resulted in a compromise suggested by Walter Mondale and Hubert 52

Humphrey: 1) Two delegates from the MFDP would be seated as at-large members. 2) The remaining delegates would be allowed to stay as guests. 3) The 1968 convention would usher in a policy of nondiscrimination for all delegations. The MFDP rejected the proposed compromise. The MFDP experience at the Democratic National Convention served to radicalize segments of the movement. Students were pleased with the decision to reject the compromise. However, they saw that they were limited within the system. They began to look for other solutions. A re-conceptualized model of rhetorical action must acknowl­edge the potency of women’s contributions. Additionally, the idea of public speaking must be re-examined. Is it public ella baker : we are all leaders


only when Whites hear and report the speech? Rhetorical scholars must look beyond the body of male rhetoric and the White-male-dominated media reports that cover such stories only partially and ignore African American female agents. Additionally, communicative strategies that address socio-emotional dynamics that facilitate growth in self-esteem and stimulate self-direction are critical to studies of rhetorical action. In effect, this transformational perspective encourages an expanded percep足tion of leadership. Baker brought a richness of experience to various communities and movement centers. She played a major role in influencing policy in the NAACP, SNCC, SCLC, and MFDP. Baker never sought the spotlight but rather worked in the background, urging ordinary 54

people to take on extraordinary tasks. Operating as a “free agent’, she challenged the status quo and affected the lives of young people and women. This essay has argued that the story of Baker and of other women must be made visible and known and must be included.

ella baker : we are all leaders


o institute suits to protect constitutional rights in public facilities and pub

blish a commission on equal employment opportunity, and for other purp

t this act may be cited as the “civil rights act of 1964”.Sec. 101. Section

nd as further amended by section 601 of the civil rights act of 1960 (74

ing new paragraphs:“(2) no person acting under color of law shall--“(a) i

dard, practice, or procedure different from the standards, practices, or pr

on who have been found by state officials to be qualified to vote;“(b) deny

ord or paper relating to any application, registration, or other act requis

w to vote; or given by the individual is furnished to him within twenty-fiv

be retained and preserved pursuant to title iii of the civil rights act of 1

propriate state or local authorities that preparation, conduct, and mainten

are necessary in the preparation, conduct, and maintenance of such test compliance therewith.“(3) For purposes of this subsection--“(a) the term

e ability to read, write, understand, or interpret any matter.”(B) insert im

such proceeding literacy is a relevant fact there shall be a rebuttal pres

ic school in, or a private school accredited by, any state or territory, the d

Ella Baker: Strength in Numbers part II  
Ella Baker: Strength in Numbers part II  

A Free Agent in The Civil Rights Movement written by Aprele Elliot. Book Designed by William Pauley for Graphic Design II, SFSU, taught by P...