By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
“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.”
Quote from Ella Josephine Baker in August, 1964, during her speech as the keynote speaker of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party Convention.
Ella Josephine Baker was born on December 13, 1903 in Norfolk, Virginia, the middle child of the three children of Blake Baker and Georgiana Ross Baker. Ella made the above statement shortly after the bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were discovered in a river in Philadelphia, Mississippi on August 4, 1964.
Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were civil rights volunteers who had been missing since June 21, 1964. They were murdered by a group of White men who were virulently opposed to African-Americans having any rights, including the right to vote.
During the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey as a founding member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Ella Baker spoke about the search for the missing civil rights workers. Two of the civil rights workers (Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner) were White men from New York, while James Chaney was an African-American from Mississippi.
During the search for the bodies of the three missing men, the bodies of several African-Americans who had been lynched by White men were discovered in Mississippi rivers. The African-American lives were not considered valuable enough to warrant a search by the authorities. In the 1998 book, Black Women Film and Video Artists, African-American professor, Jacqueline Bobo, writes: “Many Black people were aware that as the authorities searched for the missing workers, they found bodies of murdered Black men in the rivers of Mississippi that no one had previously investigated because they had not been killed along with White men.”
Baker was one of the architects of the Civil Rights Movement, working mostly with the youth as a grassroots organizer. She, like Fannie Lou Hamer, is one of many unsung sheroes who worked tirelessly in the movement.
Baker was an outspoken social justice activist and advocate and worked in several organizations that addressed the injustices faced by African-Americans. She worked as a field organizer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) beginning in 1938. As a field organizer with the NAACP, Baker travelled to various southern cities and towns, establishing NAACP chapters, recruiting new members and raising money.
As one of the contributors to the 1980 book, “Moving the Mountain: Women Working for Social Change,” Baker expressed her philosophy of organizing: “You start where the people are.” This philosophy helped to make Baker an effective and successful organizer because she could communicate with African-Americans living in poverty working as tenant farmers (sharecroppers) as well as middle-class, educated African-Americans.
In her 2003 book, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision, African-American professor, Barbara Ransby, wrote about Baker: “Her primary base of knowledge came from grassroots communities and from lived experience, not from formal study. She was a partisan intellectual, never feigning a bloodless objectivity, but always insisting that ideas should be employed in the service of oppressed people and toward the goal of justice.”
In 1942, Baker became the director of the NAACP. Six years later, she left the NAACP to raise her pre-teen niece, who she had adopted. In 1954, Baker returned as president of the New York City branch of the NAACP. In 1955, she became involved in the effort to integrate New York City’s public schools when she was asked by the mayor of New York City to be a member of the Commission on School Integration. The Commission delivered its report in 1957 and one of the recommendations suggested by Baker was to allow children to attend schools outside of their own neighbourhoods. The Open Enrollment Program, which was established in 1961, was the result of that recommendation. The Open Enrollment Program provided free transportation to elementary students on school buses, while secondary school students were given special passes to be used on the subway and buses.
Baker was also involved in other civil rights activism. On January 5, 1956, one month after Rosa Parks was tried and found guilty of breaking the White supremacist segregation law and African-Americans in Montgomery, Alabama began the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Ella Baker and other activists in New York City founded the organization, “In Friendship”.
During its three years of operation, In Friendship contributed thousands of dollars to support the work of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and its campaign to desegregate public transportation. With the successful integration of the Montgomery public transportation system, African-American activists, including Baker, co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in February 1957. Baker moved to Atlanta in 1958 to help with organizing membership in the SCLC and she also ran Crusade for Citizenship, a voter registration campaign.
Baker was instrumental in founding the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) which grew out of the peaceful African-American student sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters in department stores. On Monday, February 1, 1960, a group of African-American students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University – one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the U.S. – refused to leave a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, where they had been denied service. This sparked a wave of other sit-ins in college towns across the South.
The SNCC was co-founded by Baker in April 1960 on the campus of Shaw University (an HBCU) in Raleigh, North Carolina to coordinate and support the sit-ins. In Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement, Ransby describes the beginnings of Baker’s activism: “nurtured, educated and challenged by a community of strong, hard-working, deeply religious people – most of them women – who celebrated their accomplishments and recognized their class advantage, but who also pledged themselves to serve and uplift those less fortunate”.
Ransby also recognizes Baker’s contribution to the movement throughout her years of activism and advocacy: “From her tenure as field secretary and later director of branches for the NAACP during the 1940s through her role as political godmother to young activists in the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Baker insisted that democratic struggles be guided by an internally democratic process of open debate, deliberation and equal participation for all regardless of gender, income, education or status.”
Ella Baker’s words from 50 years ago urging that “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” are still not a reality today in 2014 with the recent “grand jury” refusal to indict the White men who killed Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Those words immortalized in song “Ella’s Song” by the African-American group Sweet Honey in the Rock, composed in 1998 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6Uus–gFrc) are almost heart breaking in today’s toxic environment where “Breathing While Black” seems to be a criminal offence.
The words of “Ella’s Song”, which were spoken by Baker in 1964 are poignant as we witness the almost daily extrajudicial killing of unarmed African-Americans as young as 12-years-old.