Monday, April 04, 2005

On Chapter Eight of Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision, By Barbara Ransby [Elissa Vinnik]

Elissa Vinnik
Freedom Movements
Peter Rachleff
April 4, 2005

On Chapter Eight of Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision, By Barbara Ransby

Mentoring a New Generation of Activists: The Birth of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee 1960-1961, chapter eight of Barbara Ransby’s Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement, provides an intimate glimpse into Ella Baker’s life and her integral role as model and mentor to the student movement and SNCC. Ransby discusses Baker’s motivations, strategies, and goals as she coordinated SNCC’s development; she addresses other young activists who were greatly influenced and inspired by Baker as well. Ransby’s reliance on primary sources—those who interacted closely with Baker during the movement—speaks to Baker’s profound positive and life-changing impact on those who knew her. Her strong personality, ability to work with diverse groups of people, and her leadership won her the respect of many. Ultimately, it was her unwillingness to succumb to established ideas of leadership, gender roles, class and resistance of established structures that made her a model for men and women of both races. Rather than analyze or criticize, this chapter summarizes events with which we have already become familiar: the Freedom Rides, division within SNCC, and student work within local communities. Instead, it is a tribute to the Ella Baker the woman, the individual, the leader, the revolutionary, and the mentor.

When Ella Baker called for the leaders of sit-ins to convene for a conference at Shaw University on April 16-18, 1960, the zealous, but disorganized, students had no reason to “embrace [her] with open arms” (241). As Baker set out to earn their trust, she was acutely aware of the students’ determination, radicalism, courage, and fervor. She believed that, with guidance, their passion and untapped strength could reenergize the civil rights movement. It was Baker, not Dr. Martin Luther King, who offered a consistent approach to the students’ beliefs and expectations. She embraced the principle of self-determination, refusing to allow the elite and expert politicians to overpower locally conceived movements because these experts saw themselves as more capable and experienced. She wanted to protect the burgeoning student movement’s creativity, energy, passion, militancy, and development from being stifled and consumed by the more established SCLC. Therefore, she sought to provide a “gentle mentorship” and develop a direction that she might influence but not determine (243).

Baker dismissed age and gender as obstacles to participate in the civil rights movement; instead, she saw them as viable forces of change. She urged students, despite their young ages of 18-24, to see themselves as capable of having an impact. Baker encouraged them to become actively involved in the movement as participants and organizers in ways dissimilar to their community leaders. She also played the role of puppeteer, pulling young individuals like Bob Moses into the movement because she saw their potential. Further, she served as an important role model to young women of both races. During the 1960’s, there were few female leaders who were as confident, charismatic, and driven as Ella Baker. Indeed, under her influence and direction, Diane Nash, who once lacked confidence and comfort with leadership, became one of the only black female student leaders to receive national attention (246).

Ransby draws from the recollections of people who knew Ella Baker and discusses the character traits that made Baker such a charismatic, admired, and effective leader. Above all, she was generous and humble. She was unwilling to put barriers between herself and the students, literally or ideologically. She rejected any kind of special treatment that might identify her as member of an elite leadership. Baker made knowing the students a priority, finding out who they were, where they came from, and what drove their participation; she made them feel important. She was described by her peers, friends, and students as kind and selfless. Despite persistent health problems, Baker put the movement before her own health, delaying much needed rest and even surgery.

Like the women involved in local movements in South Africa and the United States, Baker was denied a leadership role in the male-dominated, established structure of the civil rights movement. Instead, she sought groups whose ideas and values were similar to her own; she tried to connect with them, and help them develop their ideas. The students of SNCC were a prime example. She acted as a “political mother,” helping to turn students’ “inclinations” toward working with local community members (later termed grass-roots organizing) into “conviction” and finally into reality (251). Bob Moses’ observed that “a woman taking the “dignified and self respecting manner that was a familiar feature of black family life into the rugged political domain was nothing short of revolutionary” (257). Previously, women had rarely challenged the established structure so powerfully or successfully.

Just as Baker rejected traditional modes of leadership, she resisted the ways in which “public female figures were so often defined in conjunction with male partners and in terms of their sexual identities” (256). Indeed, she was extremely guarded about the details of her own private life. Surely, as Ransby suggests, Baker did not want her choice of spouse or lover to become a cause for criticism or impede her involvement in the movement. Similarly, during her time as a SCLC employee, Baker usually wore gray suits, dressing as similarly as possible to the men. She saw no reason to stand out as a female and or a leader. However, her dress made it clear that she was their equal and that they had better understand that her agenda was equally important and serious. Similarly, for many young women entering the movement, Baker was able to offer “an alternative image of womanhood” (256) to those young women joining the movement who came from the middle class where politics and outspokenness were deemed improper.

Ella Baker also rebelled against class divisions within the movement. She played an important role in SNCC’s decision to split with the black middle class and support the involvement of the entire black community, many of whom had been formally been excluded from the greater movement. As with women and young people, Ella Baker and SNCC dismissed preconceived notions of class and saw the lower classes as capable of great leadership. Like Baker herself, SNCC’s dress "code" represented their commitment to resist elements of elitism. Their blue jeans, as opposed to suits and ties, proved more welcoming to those traditionally excluded.
The history books may remember Ella Baker for her compromise that prevented SNCC’s fragmentation or the national attention that she brought to SNCC’s salvage of CORE’s failed Freedom Rides. However, her true legacy lies in her deep commitment to her fellow human beings, her intuitive intellect, her ability to mobilize others, and her refusal to conform to standard ideas of feminism, class, and leadership. Thus, for young people, for people of the lower classes and for women, she offered the possibility of escaping traditional restrictions and conventional roles. She taught women that if they could find their own voice, they too, might define themselves rather than be defined by others. She showed SNCC’s participants a new way of interacting with others from all kinds of communities: women and men, black and white, young and old. Baker’s example taught students to know themselves, voice their passions, and turn their passion into action. Indeed, Prathia Hall, a black women who worked in the south starting in 1962, recalled, “I would see myself in her…I was a wandering pilgrim…[and] the more I talked to her the more I understood myself” (258). Ella Baker was a woman who knew people, and who helped them, individually and collectively, reach for their best selves. Her dedication fostered a new kind of political activism. Led by her example, the students of movement successfully asserted themselves as capable, effective, and dynamic leaders, transforming their movement, their communities, and themselves into stronger, self-reliant, freer entities.

Work Cited

Ransby, Barbara. Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. London: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003.