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She Challenged the Rules

Bernardine Dohrn, activist, academic, and child advocate, is director of the Children and Family Justice Center and clinical associate professor of law in Chicago.
This article first appeared in the fall 2003 Heartland Journal (subscriptions $16; 7000 N. Glenwood, Chicago, IL, 60626; editorial: koyangmi [at]

Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill & London: University of North Carolina Press, 2003) 470 pages, cloth $34.95.

Ella Baker was known and revered by a generation of Southern civil rights organizers. Her name is virtually unrecognized by political activists today. Yet she persisted as a Southern African-American woman in male-dominated national organizations, working as an organizer/educator for five decades to help transform the poisonous U.S. landscape of white supremacy. She was a founding mentor of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who nurtured a radical democratic practice: that the black sharecroppers and most oppressed rural poor could resist oppression, challenge power, and speak for themselves. Leadership for the black community must emerge, she insisted, from the courage, experiences, suffering, and understanding of ordinary, often illiterate, people in the Mississippi Delta, in Lowndes County, Alabama, and in Albany, Georgia. Students might spark the flame: the Freedom Rides, the voter registration drives, and Mississippi Summer were staffed with young volunteers, but Baker taught them to learn from—and be transformed by—grassroots leaders and to respect their wisdom in a dynamic, group-centered manner. Never fixed or finished, she remained a work in progress; she encouraged a spirit of radical, democratic humanism that influenced the black freedom movement, labor, the women’s movement, the student antiwar movement, GIs and veterans, prison and solidarity work, and community organizing for decades to come.

Barbara Ransby, professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and herself a widely regarded and unifying radical activist, has written a profoundly brilliant and critical book that must be carried in backpacks, read and digested. It will lead to the deepest reconsiderations of the methods and purposes of social justice. Ransby, through Baker, articulates a politics that places activists among the dispossessed with humility and deference. She illuminates the dynamic between organizers and the community, revealing just how much organizers stand to learn if only they can observe the “democratic silences.” She synthesizes content and process. She challenges hierarchies. She redefines intellectual, ideology, leadership, and internationalist—with a gendered and grassroots cast.

This is no puff portrait, however. Ransby must deal with Baker’s participation in the NAACP’s shameful embrace of anticommunism in 1957 as a member of their Internal Security Committee. She moderates and gracefully demurs from Baker’s unsparing critique of Dr. Martin Luther King. She analyzes Baker’s run for New York City Council on the Liberal Party ticket in 1951 and 1953 as part of a campaign for quality integrated schools and against police brutality—but positioned amidst virulent anticommunists and noncommunists.

This is a ride through multiple dimensions of an independent radical life; Baker was New York NAACP branch president and then national director of branches, working from the national office; Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) interim director in 1958–1959; and SNCC’s coordinator 1960–1965. She knew and worked closely with the most prominent African-American men of the century: W. E. B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, George Schuyler, Walter White, A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King, James Forman, Stokely Carmichael and Robert Moses—most often as the “outsider within.” Her friendships with women included Dorothy Height, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Pauli Murray, Mary McLeod Bethune, Septima Clark, Fannie Lou Hamer, and white radicals Anne Braden and Annie Stein. Baker worked in the 1970s with the Puerto Rican Solidarity Movement, and continued to nurture young activists. She inspired a younger generation of black feminists, without herself articulating gender politics. In fact, few who worked closely with Baker ever knew of her unusual marriage, nor anything of her personal or intimate life.

“One of the major emphases of SNCC…was that of working with indigenous people, not working for them, but trying to develop their capacity for leadership,” she wrote in 1967. This is an unforgettable case study of radical democratic humanism, an insurgent life of activism as teaching, and a method of fully living a life of struggle that purposefully links practical organizing with the great goals of social justice and human possibility.

The following excerpt provides a glimpse of her determination to nurture the capacity for leadership in new activists:

The atmosphere on Shaw’s campus that weekend (April 1960) was electric. The discussions were lively, and the mood was optimistic. For many of the students, it was not until the gathering in Raleigh that they fully appreciated the national significance of their local activities. They felt honored by the presence of Dr. King, whom they had watched on television or read about in the black and mainstream press. He was a hero for most black people in 1960, and his presence gave the neophyte activists a clear sense of their own contribution to the growing civil rights movement. Baker was content to use King’s celebrity to attract young people to the meeting, but she was determined that they take away something more substantial. Most of the student activists had never heard of

Ella Baker before they arrived. Yet she, more than King, became the decisive force in their collective political future…It was radical youth Baker was concerned with. She wanted to preserve the brazen fighting spirit the students had exhibited in their sit-in protests. She did not want them to be shackled by the bureaucracy of existing organizations….

Another move Baker made that influenced the climate of the Raleigh meeting was to limit media access to the proceedings. In closed-door strategy sessions, the young people were able to express their views and expectations candidly, without the intrusive presence of reporters. Some of the students had already been captivated by the publicity their actions had garnered, and Baker did not want to encourage any grandstanding or speech making. “…You see, I’ve never had any special inclination to being publicized and I also knew that you could not organize in the public press. You might get a lot of lineage, but you really couldn’t organize….”

Baker was one of several keynote speakers at the Raleigh conference, and the only woman to address a plenary session. When her opportunity came to speak, she urged the students to see their mission as extending beyond the immediate demand to end segregation….Baker gave the students a sense of the importance of their actions. The sit-in movement was part of a worldwide struggle against many forms of injustice and oppression, she insisted. Baker encouraged her participants to see themselves—not their parents, teachers, ministers, or recognized race leaders—as the main catalysts for change. She was trying to pull the student activists beyond the confines of the South and the nation to grapple with, and connect to, a large and complex political world…(pp. 241–246).

2004, Volume 55, Issue 08 (January)
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