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Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement [Book Review]

Summary

Ella Baker was an organizer who is regarded as primarily working in the background of the Civil Rights Movement. This is true to some degree but in actuality, she loomed large in the Civil Rights Movement as a result of key roles at that NAACP, SCLC, and SNCC. Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement which was written by Barbara Ransby tells the story of Ella Baker’s life. It begins by telling the story of her family and how their history impacted her as a child. The book then moves on to her young adult experiences as an unofficial political science student in New York. But much of the book focuses on her contributions to helping shape prominent individuals and organizations who would go on to play key roles in the Civil Rights Movement.

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Show Notes

In 1903, Ella Baker was born into a family that consisted of grandparents and other relatives who had been slaves. Her mother’s family was fortunate to become landowners after emancipation. Her grandfather, Mitchell Ross, distanced himself from many cultural practices that came out of slavery as a way of exercising his new freedom. The family’s land was viewed and treated as a resource for the benefit of all members of the local community. During times of economic hardship, the land was mortgaged for money to help neighbors in need.

Owning their land rather than surviving as tenant farmers helped the family avoid some of the racial discrimination and subjugation of the time. Mr. Ross made it a point to not allow his children or grandchildren to work for White people as many poorer families had to do. He wanted the children in his family to focus on getting an education rather than picking cotton or otherwise working to help support the family. Thus Baker’s mother, Mrs. Anna Baker, was able to obtain an education, the importance of which she highly valued and passed down to her children. Mrs. Baker worked as a teacher until she got married and was encouraged by her husband to give up her job.

Unfortunately, though a relatively common occurrence for the time, Mrs. Baker lost several children to miscarriages and deaths during infancy. The author assumes that to some degree her mother’s life provided an example of the limitations placed on women and may have played a role in Baker choosing a non-traditional path. While Baker was married for twenty years, she remained independent and in addition to deciding not to have children and keeping her last name, she also didn’t make her husband or marriage the center of her life.

Even as a child Baker showed signs of being a fighter by standing up for herself and her older brother even when facing larger opponents. These qualities were further honed while she attended Shaw Academy and Shaw University for high school and college where she pushed back against some of the school’s rules. Growing up in a devoutly religious family that was also deeply committed to the community had an impact on Baker though she would make adjustments to work more directly with and pay less attention to class levels.

After graduating from college in 1927, Baker moved to Harlem and spent several years soaking up the different political and social ideas swirling around the city at the time. Despite her education, Baker found herself struggling to find well-paying stable work due to her race and gender. It didn’t help matters that the Great Depression would begin a few years after her arrival. But, through being an active presence if just a student at this point, Baker was able to procure positions working for various local organizations and institutions. Baker was exposed to various schools of thought during this period and also made her first forays into organizing through positions at the Harlem branch of the NYPL and the Young Negroes Cooperative League (YNCL).

Ella Baker also wrote an expose on “The Bronx Slave Market” an article that explained how Black women were being exploited for domestic and sexual labor. In this difficult period, Black women would stand on corners in the Bronx hoping to be selected by White housewives for a day or at least a few hours of domestic work. Of these women, those who were especially desperate for money would offer their bodies to the White men who would drive through the area looking for sex.

Baker worked for a while as a consumer education teacher for the Workers Education Project (WEP) of the WPA. She gained some aspects of her political education through discussions and debates with other teachers and adult students about political and economic problems of the day. Through Baker living in Harlem, she developed an interest in Black people across the diaspora. She loved Black people and was decidedly pro-Black but also recognized the need for working and collaborating across color lines with other oppressed people.

In 1940, Baker joined the NAACP as an assistant field secretary. Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement offers a brief history of the NAACP, as well as a behind the scenes, look at some of its most prominent figures such as Walter White and W.E.B. DuBois. It helped provide an understanding of how the NAACP functioned on a day-to-day basis and provided brief profiles of impactful but less well-known members of the organization. I agree with the explanation of Baker’s ideology being that effective political activity is about regular everyday people doing the work to transform themselves and their communities rather than celebrity leaders. She felt it was more important or at least as effective for people to feel for a cause or organization and be able to get other people to act than it was for them to be able to eloquently express or explain all of the talking points.

There’s an interesting perspective on how economic independence (ex: entrepreneurship) allowed some members of the NAACP freedom to be openly involved in activism. It was also pretty cool to read how some community leaders and members originally held sexist views of women’s ability to organize but changed their minds after working with Baker. I thought the beginning of Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement dragged but it picked up a bit and became very interesting once Baker joined the NAACP and began organizing on a larger scale. It provides a blueprint of sorts for political organizing and the mental and physical requirements for being actively involved in communities.

There is also a discussion of the difficulties caused by middle and upper-class Black people co-opting branch offices and taking up attention that would have been better spent elsewhere. It was interesting to see that respectability politics was a thing even back then which Baker pushed back against. There were friendships and support systems that developed between some of the NAACP women. But as is to be expected there’s also old school drama and messiness.

I happened to be reading the section of Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement about Baker’s involvement in the local campaign to improve and increase community control over schools after I’d listened to a podcast episode about a similar fight in 1970s Brownsville/Ocean Hill. It’s amazing that as a woman who didn’t want children of her own, Baker not only took on the responsibility of raising her niece but also took on the fight of obtaining fair and equal access to education for New York City’s Black children.

Interesting to read about how she created an organization from scratch and worked with various groups to get the ball rolling. I don’t necessarily agree with all of her ideologies regarding this topic. But I respected that she saw a need for a more militant push and took it upon herself to get the ball rolling. But eye-opening that this same fight re-emerged later. Much the same for police brutality. There’s quite a bit of tea about the shenanigans of many prominent activists in attempts to garner attention for themselves. It’s sad and petty but also amusing though it was likely and understandably infuriating for Baker.

When Baker joins the NAACP Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement begins to shift focus from organizing as an individual to the perspective of putting together campaigns as an organization. It allows you to learn about and consider options for planning campaigns and structuring an organization as well as the pros and cons that various structures can have on workers as well as the effectiveness and efficiency of the organization. Baker believed and pushed for the idea of the organization’s strength flowing from the bottom up rather than from the top down. Despite coming from a relatively privileged middle-class background, Baker develops a distaste for elitism that I found admirable. Her recognition of the importance of appealing to and working with rank and file workers as well as viewing local members of the NAACP as its lifeblood was spot on.

I don’t remember when I first became aware of Ella Baker but I’ve always associated her with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. For whatever reason, I just assumed that as with many of the other activists she was born and lived her entire life in the South during the Civil Rights Movement. Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement helped to explain that Baker lived in Harlem throughout her adult life. But, having been born and raised in the South, worked as a field worker in the South, and still having family in the South resulted in strong ties with the people of the South. This is especially notable as most people were active in one part of the country while Baker crisscrossed the Eastern part of the country trying to effect change in both the North and the South.

The story of Ella Baker’s life and career as an activist reads like a who’s who of prominent figures from the Movement. It seems there are few figures that she didn’t meet, collaborate with, or otherwise influence. You see the early experiences that shaped and influenced the later development of organizations that Baker helped to guide. It’s like the origin story for various people and organizations who would go on to become superheroes in the Civil Rights Movement.

In the formation of the SCLC and its handling of racial issues, we see a glimpse of the divide that would emerge following some wins and the end of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Many of the members of the SCLC came from middle class educated homes. They didn’t share the same realities of Black women or the rural poor. Their needs and thus the things they were fighting for were different. The author points out that they were primarily concerned with voting along with fair access and treatment in the use of public resources. There was an interest in achieving equality within the context of mainstream society but not a complete overhaul of society itself.

I thought Baker’s pilgrimage through the South to assess the needs of the rural Black population was a great idea. Rather than making assumptions about the needs of the people and how best to serve them she went out and spoke with them directly. At a time when many would flee to safety, Baker left Harlem to work at the SCLC in Atlanta. I have a deep interest in strategy whether business, political or otherwise. In reading about Baker you develop an understanding of how these seemingly simple steps would snowball into the avalanche that would become a mass movement.

I don’t remember where I first learned the concept but there’s an idea that there are three major categories of discrimination: race, gender, and economic. Often, groups pushing for equality focus on one while ignoring or even sometimes reinforcing the others. The Civil Rights Movement was laser-focused on racial discrimination but many prominent leaders and organizations were willing to maintain the status quo with regards to gender and economic inequality. There was a feeling that the fight for Civil Rights was to achieve self-determination for the Black man which would grant him economic and social parity with White men. Through that equality, women would be able to occupy their pre-ordained place in the world and home as helpmate and homemaker.

Some members of the SCLC operated under the belief that they deserved their rights not because they were human beings. But, rather because they were Christian law-abiding men from respectable middle-class families. It’s telling that Black women are the backbone of the Black church and were also the key drivers of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Yet, when the church-affiliated SCLC grew out of the success of the Bus Boycott, none of the women who were important figures in the campaign played a leadership role in the SCLC.

Unfortunately, Baker still had to deal with quite a bit of sexism within the SCLC while also fighting against racism in broader society. The members of the organization begrudgingly accepted her presence in exchange for her ability to get things done. She put up with this nonsense for the greater good of trying to help the Black community.

I would describe myself as being a womanist rather than a feminist so I’m always interested in the perspective of women who were involved in the Movement to understand their lives and experiences during the time, specifically as Black people and especially as Black women. There’s a tendency within the Black community to be willing to benefit from the sacrifices and hard work of Black women but hypocritically wanting to relegate them to second class status. Followers who do the bidding of others or are relegated to caring for the family and home but nothing beyond in the wider world.

While the NAACP had its share of issues with regards to local vs national activity and hierarchy, there were similar issues within the SCLC but with the additional problem of a singular superstar in the person of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was not one person’s fault but the campaigns of the SCLC came to revolve around the presence or involvement of MLK rather than the campaigns themselves. Baker felt and I agree that the salvation of Black people would not come from a single individual or savior. Instead of a leader, the community needed help attaining the resources and training to save itself. But, some of the leaders of the SCLC and other Civil Rights organizations saw themselves as saviors rather than helpers.

The author points out that the SCLC was willing to accept Baker’s skills and hard work but was put off by her attempts to think or act independently. This is ironic as it takes place in the South during a movement that is taking place in part because White society is willing to exploit the labor of Black people while bristling at any attempts of self-determination.

There are two paragraphs in the chapter about Baker’s relationship with King that I thought was incredibly insightful about the larger movement. It stated that there’s sometimes an occurrence where the oppressed takes on some characteristics of the oppressors even while trying to escape oppression. As products of an unfair and biased society, those biases exist within us so the oppressed can become oppressors themselves. It takes deep soul searching and self-awareness to overcome this and many people don’t have the interest or inclination to do the necessary work.

I think part of why the Civil Rights Movement is heralded as being a success while many problems from that time still exist is that the goal for some activists was not to achieve equality across the board. Instead, the aim was attaining the same privileges afforded to White men and women due to their race, class, and/or gender.

I’ve shared in several of my reviews and profiles what I describe as an oversimplification of the Civil Rights Movement. Where even in the telling of the history of a revolution, the true courage and militancy of its participants has been seriously downplayed. At the time, individuals such as Rosa Parks, MLK, etc. were not the national heroes they’ve since become but were instead regarded as radicals. Over time their history of activism has been sanitized. Yet some people were equally prominent at the time and even more left-field and arguably militant. You have to ask yourself, “Why have these people been seemingly lost to history or at least why aren’t their stories as widely known? Where did this idea come from that Southern Black people had been passively giving in to White supremacy but suddenly began resisting racial oppression in the 1950s?”

The truth is that there had been a longstanding and ongoing rebellion since emancipation and even before then. The difference was that the fight had been on an individual, local, and grassroots basis. These were not the mass campaigns of the 1950s-60s that garnered national attention so they’re less well-known. But the participants were incredibly brave because there were no cameras around to document what was happening or to broadcast it outside of the community. It was unlikely that protection or defense from reprisals would come from outside of these communities. As a result, Black people in the South had been practicing self-defense, sometimes armed, for generations. They might not have been openly confrontational but were also not sitting idly waiting for freedom to be handed or delivered to them. There was a long history of fighting for freedom.

The distinction is made that Baker viewed non-violence as a tactic but not as an uncompromisable principle. I was curious about what prompted Baker’s ideological transition from the notably nonviolent SCLC to more militant groups in the 1960s. As the book and time progress so does Baker’s views. She has principles but early in the book is willing, though apprehensively, to pull punches and refrain from getting involved in activities that might be strategically problematic as I think most people would. But as the relative calm of the 1950s gave way to the turbulence of the 60s, Baker became equally unrestrained.

I think part of what allowed Baker to join, adopt, and progress with these different organizations is that she was not threatened by change. She also didn’t see herself as a figurehead so a shift in focus or tactics wasn’t a threat to her prominence in the movement. Baker felt that the people and organizations in the movement might have their moment as a driving force but should then adapt or make way for new people and ideas.

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement drags and I found it incredibly difficult to get through. That is until Baker started moving between organizations and I knew the 60s were inching closer. The pacing quickened and while it took me a month of reading to get through the first 150 pages, I got through the next 80 pages in a single day. Reading this book threw off my regular publishing schedule as I took longer than usual to read the book. I would find myself sitting with the book for hours and only managing to get through a few pages. Part of this is due to the book being heavy on exploring Baker’s philosophies and my need to take notes to organize my thoughts for writing a review. But, if I’m being honest, the book is pretty dry at some points.

The book provides a lot of information down to minute details about Ella Baker’s professional life. You learn a lot about Ella Baker’s political dealings and philosophies but I didn’t feel like I got a sense of Ella Baker as a person. There are facts about her personal life as an adult such as she was married and raised her niece. But you don’t read, certainly not in her own words, her feelings or thoughts about these relationships. For example, how exactly did she and her husband meet and given that they made living separate lives work for years, why did the marriage end? How did she feel about those two bookend events and the time in between? What did she feel about and how did she adjust to finding herself raising her sister’s child when she did not want to have children?

These questions loom in the book and aren’t answered because as the author explains Baker kept her personal life incredibly private to the point that even some close acquaintances didn’t know that she was married for 20 years. Ella Baker was certainly entitled to her privacy but it places some limitations on a biography. It was difficult to get into the book because it feels like you’re reading a corporate biography rather than the complete story of a person’s life. You get a sense of her philosophy and presence but not so much the person she was or how she viewed herself.

Quite often society tries to force women into the restrictive box of being a lady in exchange for being deemed worthy of respect. Ella Baker doesn’t sound like she carried herself as a ruffian but she also didn’t try to conform to the stereotypes of being a lady. Instead, she defined and embodied a persona of her own making and part of that involved shielded her inner life and self from the public.

I admire Ella Baker, she’s one of my heroes. I read Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement because I wanted to learn more about her, which I did. But I ended both liking and disliking the book. Ella Baker is an incredibly important and interesting figure in Black history but the emotional impact of that doesn’t come across in the book. This is partly because while she was very willing to share her ideas, she wasn’t as willing to share her inner self. But it could also be that the writing just isn’t that engaging. There are moments of excitement when it seems things are picking up but mostly just ends up continuing to slog along. It’s not a very long book but it felt like it.

Yet, in reading the book it seemed like the story was about Baker being a child then suddenly off at school and then New York in a matter of pages. Before I realized it she was being described as “middle-aged”. I thought the author might have been wrong and found myself calculating her age at points in the book.

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement has its pros and cons but I still recommend reading this book for people who are interested in Ella Baker, the Civil Rights Movement, operating a non-profit, or running social justice campaigns. Honestly, I think Baker deserves better than this book but given the lack of source material I don’t feel it’s fair to completely blame the author.

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