Leading Lady : Ella Josephine Baker

"I have always thought that what is needed is the development of people who are interested not in being leaders as much as in developing leadership in others."

Ella Baker is a lesser known civil and human rights activist and influential community organizer by design. At the height of the civil rights movement, she worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and W.E.B DuBois, but unlike her more famous counterparts often chose not to be the highly visible spokesperson of her cause. This was paramount to Baker’s particular brand of community organizing, in which she preferred to cultivate and develop members of the community to be the faces and leaders of their own uprising, rather than placing herself as the figurehead of the movement.

Baker, a Virginia native born in 1903, started working at the NAACP as a secretary in 1938, and by 1943 became the highest-ranking woman in the organization. She organized the masses as the director of branches and taught through her action. Traditional social systems and constructs were nothing that she wanted a part of, and she actively defied flawed systems of customary race, class, and gender roles in her organizations. She encouraged collective power rather than individual, and promoted learning through strategic, thoughtful questioning. Baker withheld judgment and arbitration throughout group discussions, allowing conflict for the purpose of learning and forming opinions.

Baker provided leadership in the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee, the Southern Conference Education Fund, the “Free Angela [Davis]” campaign, and supported the Puerto Rican independence movement among many other causes. As one of the most important and influential leaders of the 20th Century, Baker fought for radical change through community development and empowerment of the marginalized, remaining an activist until her death on her 83rd birthday. - Samantha Drane


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