Black History Month, day 25

Ella Baker, painted here by Robert Shetterly, was working for the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference when students inspired by the Greensboro lunch counter sit-in began sitting in at segregated libraries, pools, and parks–as well as restaurants–in protest. Baker asked the SCLC for some start-up funds and put out a call for student leaders at her alma mater, Shaw University. The result was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating  Committee (SNCC), which, with Baker as one of their key mentors and guides, went on to organize the Freedom Rides, voter registration of people who were penalized harshly for registering (African-American voters often lost their jobs, or were assaulted, for registering), Freedom Schools, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. SNCC’s John Lewis gave one of the most fiery speeches at the 1963 March on Washington, and under Stokely Carmichael’s leadership it led the Black Power movement–and also dismissed the role of the women who had shaped it into such a force. In the meantime, Baker was forming yet another organization, the Southern Conference Educational Fund.

She had a genius for empowering others to take action, for leading them by helping them find their own authority. She distrusted reliance on prominent, charismatic leaders, saying, “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.” As she said of her earlier work developing the Young Negroes’ cooperative league, which aimed to give its members economic power through unity, “The major job was getting people to understand that they had something within their power that they could use.” It often is.