**This Post is part of a larger series of activist we should know**

“People have to be made to understand that they cannot look for salvation anywhere but to themselves” 

               -Ella Baker

As students, and certainly students in North Carolina, we have heard much about the Greensboro Sit-Ins and the Civil Rights Movement.  We heard about injustice—probably for only for a few days in our US History course—as if it happened, was discovered to be wrong, and then changed by a few super-humans who lead us to the promised land of equality before the law.  This reduced, linear reading of history leaves us with few lessons to carry forward—little to nourish ourselves as citizens in a world still yearning for people committed to make change and confront ever more entrenched oppressions.  These histories leave us merely with monuments to what was.  We look on them with reverence and wait for our next hero.

As seekers of justice we cannot be satisfied with the dominant narrative of history.  We must sharpen our eyes and dig through the past in hopes of finding the roots of our current struggles.  We must discover our ancestors, learn from their efforts, and carry forward their vision with ours.  We must look to groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and figures like Ella Jo Baker.

Ella Baker grew up near the North Carolina-Virginia border on what today we would call a cooperative farm.  Her parents believed in building community among African-Americans and thus she grew up surrounded by a large group of extended family that worked together and shared resources to sustain each other.  Out of this work Ms. Baker quickly gained a sense of collective struggle and a self-sufficient streak.  Her upbringing in this collectivist, deeply democratic setting informed her belief on the importance of radical democracy in organizing work.

Ella Baker went on to become a leading field organizer and director of the NAACP, founder of In Friendship, and the first organizer of Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  She brought to all of these organizations perhaps the largest network of committed people built by any civil rights leader.  She left all of these organizations with a want for something that none of the major civil rights groups could give her: an organization that took seriously building a struggle which would uplift the voices of Black-Americans on the ground in the most dangerous areas of the southern United States while building long term leadership and attacking the roots of a society she believed did not meet the needs of working people.  In many ways, the nomadic nature of her activist career made her a perfect candidate to facilitate the convergence of young activists that came to be the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

As the sit-in movement was sweeping the country, Ella Baker used her influence within SCLC to solicit funds and organize a conference of the young activists to take place in April 1960 in Raleigh, North Carolina at Shaw University.  While organizations from the NAACP to CORE lobbied for the students to join their ranks, Baker offered students a different perspective.  She told them to build their own organization.  They agreed with her and formed the group that would become SNCC.  While I certainly cannot do justice to the legacy of SNCC in this post, there are many sources I would encourage you to explore.  First among these is Charles Payne’s I’ve Got the Light of Freedom in which he describes eloquently the impact of this organization.

SNCC initiated the mass-based, disruptive political style we associate with the sixties, and it provided philosophical and organizational models and hands on training for people who would become leaders in the student power movement, the anti-war movement, and the feminist movement

This formation of this dynamic group was made possible by the mentorship of Ella Baker.

Knowing the legacy of Ms. Baker brings with it a responsibility to carry on and fulfill her mission.  She envisioned a movement which would be led not by ministers or the privileged, but by the people who most needed it.  She recognized the importance of nonviolent direct action and encouraged activist to take up the work of building collectives that would be capable of meeting injustice head on.  She believed in the importance of organizing the American South and uplifting the voices of the working class, young people, and people of color. In the end she hoped to build a society of cooperation and collective action which brought her back to the interdependent community of her youth. As Payne states in his book, the complex political legacy of SNCC “went back at least as far as Miss Baker’s grandfather’s farm.”  The question now is how much further we can carry it.

-MH

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