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Organizing Lessons from Civil Rights Leader Ella Baker
by repost: Chris Crass
03 Mar 2008
Ella Baker, who was born in North Carolina in 1905, was politicized and radicalized by the poverty of the Great Depression. She participated in self-help programs throughout the 30s and developed an understanding and respect for the process by which people take control over their own lives while also protesting injustices.
[This is an excerpt from an essay written by Chris Crass on organizing lessons to be learned from the life long revolutionary organizing work of Ella Baker.]
Ella Baker, Community Organizing and Participatory Democracy
In the late 1930s, Baker became a field organizer for the NAACP. She would travel throughout the South and lecture, network and organize with any one person or group of people she could find. She would stay with local branches and help organize membership drives. She would assist local groups that were having either internal or external problems. However, her overall goal of organizing was to bring the NAACP to the grassroots. As an organizer, Baker believed very strongly in the abilities and the knowledge of local people to address their own issues. She believed that the national organization should serve as a system of support to offer assistance and resources to local campaigns and projects. She believed that organizations needed to serve the grassroots that made the organization strong.
In the early 1940's she became the assistant field secretary for the NAACP and by 1943, she was named the national director of branches. Baker describes her years of organizing with the NAACP and what she tried to accomplish as follows: "My basic sense of it has always been to get people to understand that in the long run, they themselves are the only protection they have against violence and injustice. If they only had ten members in the NAACP at any given point, those ten members could be in touch with twenty-five members in the next little town, with fifty in the next and throughout the state as a result of the organization of state conferences and they, or course, could be linked up with the national. People have to be made to understand that they cannot look for salvation anywhere but themselves".
Baker's organizational style actively worked to keep people informed and empowered, with the goal of people organizing themselves. Baker argued that strong people do not need a strong leader; rather they need an organization that can provide mutual aid and solidarity. Those views on organizing were very different then those of the national NAACP. In fact, Baker became critical of the national NAACP's failure to support the development of self-sufficient local groups, as it failed to help "local leaders develop their own leadership potential". In response to the unsupportive stance of the national NAACP, Baker began organizing regional gatherings to bring people together and help develop local leadership and organizing skills.
Baker worked to organize and support regional gatherings to both develop people's skills and build communities of support and resistance. This is an example of Baker's commitment to bottom up organizing that values the work of developing relationships between people and building trust, respect and power on a grassroots level. She believed in participatory democracy, not just in theory or on paper, but in the messy and complex world of practice: where mistakes are made, decision-making is tough, and the process of growth is slow.
In her essay, "Ella Baker and the Origins of 'Participatory Democracy'", Carol Mueller breaks down Ella's conception of participatory democracy into three parts: (1) an appeal for grassroots involvement of people throughout society in the decisions that control their lives; (2) the minimization of hierarchy and the associated emphasis on expertise and professionalism as a basis for leadership; and (3) a call for direct action as an answer to fear, alienation and intellectual detachment.
The call for direct action was one of Baker's main strategies for creating meaningful social change. She argued that it is the people themselves who create change; that not only does direct action challenge injustice in society, but that ultimately individuals confront the oppression in their own heads and begin the process of self-transformation and self-actualization.
She also believed that as people organize, they will learn from their mistakes and successes and become stronger people in the process: people who believe in themselves and feel a sense of their own power to affect the world around them and make history. If there was a shortage of food due to economic injustice, she would help people to provide food for themselves but she would also help organize folks to protest the economic conditions that deny people food. If the school system isn't providing a satisfactory education, then the community must come together to demand changes and to also provide alternatives ways of learning (i.e. after school programs, study groups, tutoring programs, free schools, homeschooling, etc.). For Baker, direct action was about achieving immediate goals, but it was also deeply connected to developing a sense of power in the people involved. It is this sense of power that would change people far beyond winning the immediate goals and help build a sustainable movement with long-term commitment and vision. It would also hopefully impact people's perceptions of themselves in relationship to the world and open up greater possibilities for happiness and satisfaction.
Ms. Baker had an innovative understanding of leadership, an idea which she thought of in multiple ways: as facilitator, creating processes and methods for others to express themselves and make decisions; as coordinator, creating events, situations and dynamics that build and strengthen collective efforts; and as teacher/educator, working with others to develop their own sense of power, capacity to organize and analyze, visions of liberation and ability to act in the world for justice. Ella believed that good leadership created opportunities for others to realize and expand their own talents, skills and potential to be leaders themselves. This did not mean that she didn't challenge people or struggle with people over political questions and strategies. Rather, this meant that she struggled with people over these questions to help develop principled and strategic leadership capable of organizing for social transformation.
Baker described good leadership as group-centered leadership. Group-centered leadership means that leaders form in groups and are committed to building collective power and struggling for collective goals. This is different than leader-centered groups, in which the group is dedicated to the goals and power of that leader.
Baker's commitment to participatory democracy led her to resign as the national director of branches of the NAACP in 1946. She moved to New York to care for her niece and became the local branch director and immediately began the process of taking the organization to the grassroots; out of the offices and into the streets.
After the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education verdict declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional, Baker and the local branch started campaigning against segregation in the New York school system. Additionally, after the court decision, Baker and several other organizers formed the group In Friendship, which provided financial assistance to local leaders in the South who were suffering reprisals for their organizing. In Friendship believed that the time had come for a mass mobilization against the legally sanctioned racial apartheid of Jim Crow society in the South. When the Montgomery Bus Boycott campaign generated local mass participation, national support and international media, In Friendship thought they might have found the spark that they were looking for. The group established contact with the Montgomery Improvement Association who was leading the campaign and began taking notes as well as offering support and advice.
Once the campaign came to an end in 1956, with a major victory against segregation on the city buses, In Friendship put forward a proposal to the local leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. and others. Ella Baker , Bayard Rustin and Stanley Levinson approached Dr. King with the idea of an organizational structure to help network and build a Southern movement against segregation. They believed that Montgomery had shown that "the center of gravity had shifted from the courts to community action" and that now was the time to strike. In 1957, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was founded. The SCLC was intended to be a network of local leaders and communities coordinating their actions and providing assistance to one another. The SCLC was also formed around the strategy of getting more clergy members to involve themselves and their church communities in the Civil Rights struggle. SCLC started with sixty-five affiliates throughout the South. The leader of the SCLC was Martin Luther King, Jr., but it was Ella Baker who opened and ran the group's office in Atlanta, and she used her connections throughout the South to lay the groundwork for the organization. The two principal strategies of SCLC, laid out at the group's founding conference, were building voter power in the Black community and mass direct action against segregation. Baker spent two and a half years as the acting executive director of SCLC. She ran the Atlanta office and traveled throughout the South building support for the organization. The first project was the Crusade for Citizenship, which aimed at doubling the number of Black votes in the South within a year. With hardly any resources and little support from the other leaders of SCLC, over thirteen thousand people came together in over 22 cities to plan and initiate the campaign.
During her two and half years of organizing with SCLC, her relationship with the leadership began to wane. While Ella continued her work building a bottom up, grassroots powered organization, others in SCLC consolidated their adherence to the strategy of the charismatic leader-centered group style that formed around King. In addition to this, she was never officially made the executive director during her tenure as 'acting' executive director. Baker said that she was never made official because she was neither a minister nor a man. The failure to recognize and respect women's leadership was a major weakness in the SCLC and in other formations of the Civil Rights movement.
Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Organizing Tradition
In 1960, a massive resurgence of Civil Rights activism and direct action took place amongst students who initiated the sit-in movement, which swept through the South like wildfire. Thousands of students participated in desegregation actions in which Black and some white students would sit at segregated lunch counters requesting to be served and refusing to leave. The sit-ins were dramatic; they brought the tensions of racial apartheid to the surface and often ended with white violence against the sit-in protesters. The sit-in movement erupted out of previously existing autonomous groups and/or networks that had been forming. They were largely uncoordinated beyond the local level and there were no visible public leaders - it was a self-organized movement. Within a year and a half sit-ins had taken place in over one hundred cities in twenty states and involved an estimated seventy thousand demonstrators with three thousand six hundred arrests. Ella Baker immediately realized the potential of this newly developing student movement and went to work organizing a conference to be held in Raleigh, North Carolina in April of 1960.
The conference brought together student activists and organizers from around the South who had participated in the sit-in movement. There were two hundred delegates out of which one hundred twenty were student activists representing fifty-six colleges and high schools from twelve Southern states and the District of Columbia. As the conference was organized by Baker and she was the acting executive director of SCLC, the leadership of SCLC hoped that the students would become a youth wing of the adult organization. However, Baker, who delivered one of the key-note speeches at the conference, urged the students to remain autonomous, form their own organization and set their own goals that would reflect their militancy and passion for social change.
The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee was born out of the Raleigh conference. SNCC (pronounced Snick) was run by the students themselves along with two adult advisors: Ella Baker and Howard Zinn. It would become one of the most important organizations of the 60s. They played a major role in the Freedom Rides, another direct action tactic that dramatically protested segregation. It's organizers started the "jail no bail" strategy of filling the jails and refusing to pay bail until segregation was ended. SNCC also played a principle role in Freedom Summer in Mississippi. That campaign followed their strategy of grassroots community organizing that took them into some of the most formidable areas of the South.
Ella Baker has been referred to as both the mid-wife who helped deliver SNCC and the founder who helped articulate the base principles from which the group developed. For instance, SNCC was committed to group-centered leadership, to mass direct action, to organizing in the tradition of developing people's capacity to work on their own behalf, and to community building that was participatory and involved local people in decision-making with the goal of developing local leaders. In looking to the lessons of Ella Baker's organizing strategies, it is useful to look at SNCC to see how these concepts were experimented with and applied. From the examples of SNCC, we can draw both insights and inspiration for the work that we are doing today.
Charles Payne writes in his book, I've Got the Light of Freedom: "SNCC may have the firmest claim to being called the borning organization [as in inspiring and helping shape other organizations]. 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, anti-war movement, and the feminist movement. SNCC forced the civil rights movement to enter the most dangerous areas of the South. It pioneered the idea of young people 'dropping out' for a year or two to work for social change. It pushed the proposition that merely bettering the living conditions of the oppressed was insufficient; that has to be done in conjunction with giving those people a voice in the decisions that shape their lives. As SNCC learned to see beyond the lunch counter, the increasingly radical philosophies that emerged within the organization directly and indirectly encouraged a generation of scholars and activists to reconsider the ways that social inequality is generated and sustained."
One model of organizing in SNCC was the Freedom School used in Mississippi. The Freedom Schools prioritized political education informed by daily reality to connect day-to-day experiences with an institutional analysis. The Freedom Schools focused on building leadership and training organizers. SNCC envisioned the schools to operate as "parallel institutions" or what many anarchists refer to today as "counter-institutions". Charlie Cobb, who first proposed the creation of the Freedom Schools said that the schools were to be "an educational experience for students which will make it possible for them to challenge the myths of our society, to perceive more clearly its realities and to find alternatives and ultimately, new directions for action". Curriculum at the schools ranged from "Introducing the Power Structure", to critiques of materialism in "Material Things and Soul Things". There were classes on non-violence and direct action as well as classes on economics and how the power structure manipulates the fears of poor whites. The lessons learned from the Freedom Schools can help us to envision programs that educate as well as train people to take action.
Ella Baker devoted her time, energy and wisdom to SNCC, which came to embody those principles of participatory democracy and grassroots community organizing that she had helped to develop throughout her lifetime as a radical organizer. Both Baker and SNCC struggled to create collective leadership, to engage in activism that empowered others to become active, to generate change from the bottom up and to experiment with expanding democratic decision making into everyday life.
The history and experiences of SNCC offer much to organizers today, in terms of how we go about our work and how we envision our goals. One organizer from SNCC, Bob Zellner, described being an organizer as similar to a juggling act, "Organizers had to be morale boosters, teachers, welfare agents, transportation coordinators, canvassers, public speakers, negotiators, lawyers, all while communicating with people who range from illiterate sharecroppers to well-off professionals and while enduring harassment from agents of the law and listening with one ear for threats of violence. Exciting days and major victories are rare". Ella Baker described community organizing as 'spade work', as in the hard work gardening when you prepare the soil for seeds for the next season. It is hard work, but it is what makes it possible for the garden to grow.
Charles Payne warns us repeatedly to look at the everyday work that builds movements and creates social change and to draw from those experiences in order to learn the lessons for our work today. He writes, "Overemphasizing the movement's more dramatic features, we undervalue the patient and sustained effort, the slow, respectful work, that made the dramatic moments possible".
From here, he develops an analysis of how sexism operates in organizing efforts. He explores why it is that in most histories of social movements, the profound impact of women is rarely mentioned. In the Civil Rights movements it was women and young people who were the backbone of the struggle. On this Payne writes, "We know beyond dispute that women were frequently the dominant force in the movement. Their historical invisibility is perhaps the most compelling example of the way our shared images of the movement distort and confuse the historical reality. There is a parallel with the way in which we typically fail to see women's work in other spheres. Arlene Daniels, among others, has noted that what we socially define as 'work' are those activities that are public rather than private and those activities for which we get paid. In the same way, the tendency in the popular imagination and in much scholarship has been to reduce the movement to stirring speeches - given by men - and dramatic demonstrations - led by men. The everyday maintenance of the movement, women's work, overwhelmingly, is effectively devalued, sinking beneath the level of our sight".
As organizers today, it is crucial that we look at our own work and consider what activities we place value on. How do we treat the people making the grand speeches and leading the rallies? And how do we treat the people making the phone calls, facilitating the meetings, distributing the flyers, raising money, taking time out to listen to the troubles of other organizers, coordinating child-care, cooking all day, patiently answering dozens of questions from new volunteers or potential supporters, or working really hard to make other people in the group or project feel listened to, respected, heard, valued and supported?
Whose names do we remember and whose work do we praise? As organizers we are not just putting together actions; we are helping to build community, helping to build supportive and loving relationships between people, helping to sustain and nourish alternative values of cooperation and liberation in this fiercely competitive and individualistic society.
This was the strength of Ella Baker's work, a strength that I think we can learn enormously from: her attention to group development. Ella Baker stressed the need to not only politicize and mobilize people, but to consciously develop people's capacities to be organizers and leaders in the long haul struggle for a better world. While "each one teach one" strategies and training people in the skills of organizing don't grab headlines in the media, it is this work that builds movement and develops a community of empowerment, solidarity and support that we need in order to transform society. Ella Baker's legacy is one that both inspires and informs our day-to-day efforts. The challenge before us is to make sense of her legacy in relationship to our work today.