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Stories of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement are especially critical during these times of social upheaval. There are lessons we can learn from the structural and interpersonal struggles within civil rights organizations, and we can apply them today to the struggle against wanton police violence in Black communities and socioeconomic barriers to Black autonomy. The story of Black lives is the story of increased democratic decision-making in U.S. civic society — something we all benefit from. Historical examples of success in the struggle for racial equality provide blueprints for contemporary movements such as Black Lives Matter and, locally, Anti Police-Terror Project in a country that devalues human life for the sake of profit.
The mid-century fight for civil rights and liberties is synonymous with the life story of Ella Baker, born in Norfolk, VA in 1903, as detailed in this biography (Ella Baker: Freedom Bound) by Joanne Grant, her younger contemporary and fellow activist for civil rights. Baker, shaped by the Black church and moral lessons of her mother and grandfather, provided the framework and structural power by which prominent civil rights leaders could push for change from federal and local governments. Skeptical of media attention and highly pragmatic to the end, Baker was wary of cults of personality in justice circles and valued highly the role of local, mass movements in civil rights organizations. This biography is an exhaustive account of her development as a professional organizer and human relations expert, into an activist who treated everyone with equanimity and created leaders out of youth movements, primarily with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as a founding executive and mentor.
Baker was primarily based in New York City (specifically the Harlem neighborhood), but was intimately familiar with Southern struggles, and devoted about two decades of her life to voter registration campaigns, educational workshops, civil rights conferences, and leadership training in the South, all while White Citizens’ Councils and branches of the Ku Klux Klan perpetrated violence against Black people, businesses, and churches. Prior to Baker’s involvement in the Southern civil rights struggle, she had joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as director of branches, honing her organizational skills and traveling around the country, sometimes under dangerous travel conditions, enabling local activists to become racial justice leaders. Baker preferred organizing with SNCC because she identified the mass youth movement as the one that would enact national change at the local level, rather than be buried under interpersonal conflict and politics within the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), of which she was also a founding member following the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Though SNCC eventually disintegrated due to several factors, namely the increasing militancy of students, FBI manipulation, and political infighting, the organization successfully registered thousands of new Black voters, increased adult literacy in the South, and created a movement that pressured the federal government to enact new protections and rights for Black Americans. Baker organized directly with activists such as Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King, Jr., Charles McDew, and Angela Davis.
Joanne Grant was a journalist during the Civil Rights Movement, and looked up to Baker as a mentor. Grant highlights the life of Baker as one ferociously dedicated to the struggle of human rights, who found ultimate fulfillment in her work. Since Baker was busy throughout her life organizing and fundraising for civil rights groups, hers is a story that is inseparably entwined with that of the struggle of the Black community as a whole. Grant provides a well-researched account of a historical figure without much psychological extrapolation of Baker’s character, beyond the matters of her direct action within the racial justice struggle.
Without the pragmatism and organizational skills of Ella Baker, the momentum of the nonviolent student movement may not have been harnessed to influence radical changes in American society and government. We need radical action coupled with tight horizontal organization, such as that implemented by Ella Baker, to achieve true democratic ideals.