(Two notes: Blogging every day is hard! Losing an almost-finished entry to a technical glitch is a huge gumption killer–save your draft often, kids! Okay, done whining now. On to three posts on women in the civil rights movement, as we mark the 50th anniversary of the marches on Selma.)

EllaBakerElla Baker was one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), having already spent many decades as a leader of the NAACP and of black consumers’ cooperatives, which she regarded as a training ground in democracy and self-determination. Accounts vary as to whether Martin Luther King anointed her Executive Director of the SCLC or she anointed him leader. What’s clear is that her leadership was central to turning this small faith-based organization into a major force for civil rights.

She was mostly a behind-the-scenes organizer and a mentor to emerging leaders who got more face time, but that doesn’t mean she was meek. When students in Greensville and Nashville began holding sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, she saw a need to help them organize more broadly, and called a meeting at her alma mater, Shaw University. The meeting was attended by hundreds and ended with the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Other SCLC leaders wanted SNCC to be an auxiliary of their own organization, arguing that SCLC had helped it get rolling, but Baker stood up for the autonomy of the student organization. Later, she helped start the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which pressed for anti-segregationists to represent Mississippi’s Democrats at the 1964 Democratic Convention and became the focus of tremendous media attention during the convention because of the split in the Democratic Party that it illuminated and the persistence with which it made its case. Meek? No.

To me she stands as a reminder of a certain kind of power: not fast and flashy like lightning, nor loud like a rocket, but tireless and immovable, like an oak tree. That kind of power is as necessary and mighty as any other. “We shall not be moved . . . ”

When the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner drew the nation’s eye to Mississippi, it was Ella Baker who pointed out the many black bodies in the swamps of Mississippi that neither the FBI nor the nation’s conscience had deemed important, and said, “Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son–we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.” Bernice Johnson Reagon of the group Sweet Honey in the Rock turned these and other words of Baker’s into a song (“Ella’s Song”), and they have been sung, murmured, memed, screenprinted, and cried out many times in these past couple of years in which they have been self-evidently, painfully, all too current.

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