Ella Baker at a news conference in 1968
Credit Jack Harris/Associated Press
I admit I did not watch former Vice President Joe Biden’s Democratic National Convention acceptance speech. Apparently I missed a Black Woman shout out. Days before, I heard DNC host Tracee Ellis Ross pay homage to the Black women who paved the way for Vice Presidential candidate and Senator, Kamala Harris’, historic run. Ross lifted Charlotta Bass, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Shirley Chisholm. In her nomination acceptance speech Harris too gave tribute to the prowess and acumen of Black women political leaders. In addition to Hamer, Harris highlighted Mary Church Terrell, Mary MacLeod Bethune, Diane Nash, and Constance Baker Motley as Black women on whose shoulders she stands and in whose pumps she walks (my addition).
Still one woman’s name was just a whisper during the Convention as it was at services for the late Congressman John Lewis — Ella Baker.
That was until Presidential candidate, Joe Biden, quoted Baker in the opening of his speech: “Give people light, and they will find a way.” From 1944-1946 as NAACP Director of Branches, Baker convened officials from Shreveport to Chicago to conduct workshops for local NAACP leaders. The title was synonymous with these leadership conferences. She borrowed the phrase from one of her favorite hymns. Baker employed the theme because she believed people did not really need to be led. They needed to be given skills to lead themselves.
After resigning her role at the NAACP, Baker became one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Yet, she left the organization in 1958. Her male colleagues only recognized her competence and expertise to a degree. The “preacher’s club” named Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker to replace Baker at the helm. According to biographer Barbara Ransby, due to this prevailing patriarchy and what she deemed a focus on “mass rallies and grand exhortations by ministers without follow-up,” Baker departed the SCLC and chose to go her own womanly way.
While leaving the SCLC, Baker did not leave the work of civil rights.
In 1960 after witnessing the power of student sit-ins, Baker organized the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or SNCC (“snick”). Because of the influence of SNCC, students became the face of the Freedom Rides in 1961. These Freedom Rides from Washington, D.C. and Nashville down to Alabama led to Freedom Summer in 1964. In the heat of the day, students led volunteers from across the nation in a massive voter registration drive throughout Mississippi. Subsequently many students formed the Students for a Democratic Society.
In the book of Deuteronomy, God offers Moses and the children of Israel the choice of “life and prosperity or death and adversity” (30:19). Ironically, God makes the decision for them and admonishes the hearers to cast their lot with life “so that their descendants may live” (v.19). In other words, what Moses and his followers do at this intersection will influence children whom they will not live to see.
The action they take at this fork in the road will set the path for their progeny.
Additionally, the Book of Ecclesiasticus, not Ecclesiastes, upholds the significance of making proper choices. This literature, sometimes referred to as “Sirach” is a part of the Apocryphal or Deuterocanoncial works prevalent in Catholicism. In Sirach or Ecclesiasticus chapter 15, the author makes note of “the power of ... free choice” (v.14), and humanity’s “choice between fire and water” (v. 16). As recorded in Deuteronomy, this book also comments that “before each person are life and death” (v. 17).
Both sacred texts offer contextual relevance in helping us see that some decisions are not mere matters of material, food, or size. Pondering life or death choices is just that — will what you do make life better for you and the community or will what I decide possibly bring destruction to me and my neighbor?
Any “choice” words spoken in haste can kill my brother’s spirit, but choosing to employ language in love can shape a girl’s self-esteem and give her promise.
Standing at the crossroads and junctures of life is not solely about our individual living. These watershed challenges should lead us to consider touching people outside our physical reach. This is the legacy of Ella Baker.
Ella Baker seized the opportunity and made a decision that would turn the tide of history. She chose to do what far exceeded herself. Although SNCC is no longer a viable entity and Baked died in 1986, her name, her work, and her spirit thrive.
In his remarks at the home going services for John Lewis, Rev. James Lawson averred it was Black women who made the decision to desegregate downtown Nashville. Vice Presidential candidate Harris stated Black women paved the way. To say SNCC, Lewis, Selma, one needs also to sing her song and yes, #SayHerName — Ella Baker.
This blog has been adapted from its original publication on August 3, 2020 “Ella Baker: A Name We All Should Know.”
Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, author, speaker and teacher, is a Baptist and Disciples of Christ minister who holds a Ph.D. in New Testament from Vanderbilt University. Her latest book is When Momma Speaks: The Bible and Motherhood from a Womanist Perspective. This #WomanistMomma currently serves as Associate Professor and Academic Dean at Chicago Theological Seminary.
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