Women March, the immersive New-York Historical exhibition about 200 years of women’s activism and organizing, demonstrates that collective action begins when just one person confronts injustice, and then another joins her, and then another. The exhibition features a digital interactive on individuals’ lives, representing a portrait of some of the many instrumental figures in women’s activism. These profiles were compiled by high school interns in New-York Historical’s Teen Leaders program. While the Museum is temporarily closed to help contain the spread of COVID-19, we’re committed to sharing the ideas of Women March from afar.
One activist featured in the biographies interactive is Ella Baker, best known for organizing a pivotal civil rights organization: the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). While her roots in the Black Baptist community gelled with the southern, nonviolent mindset of the early civil rights movement, it was Baker’s time in New York—and Harlem, specifically—that exposed Baker to a diverse African Diaspora of southern migrants (like herself), Jamaicans, Barbadians, and those from other locales that produced the theoretical framework of a ground-up, poor peoples’ movement. Baker, in turn, passed this model on to SNCC.
Baker arrived in New York in 1927 when she was 24 years old. The city was bustling with an active political and intellectual life, and she was captivated by the diverse groups of people she encountered. Working as a waitress in Greenwich Village, an area of the city known for its eccentric arts and counterculture, she was introduced to socialism and Marxist theory. And while she never joined any socialist party, friends called Baker “a student of Marx” who frequently engaged in discourse on Marxist ideas.
Two sites in Harlem—the 135th Street Library and the Harlem Branch YWCA—were pivotal to Baker’s intellectual development and political networking, alongside hundreds of other young Black Harlemites—artists, activists, and intellectuals. At the 135th Street Library, Baker founded the Negro History Club to hold forums and educational programs discussing historical and contemporary issues of interest to the community. In the 1930s, Baker stretched her community organizing muscles with the Adult Education Community to found the Young People’s Forum, a “consciousness-raising program” for Harlemites in their teens and 20s. Not only did these groups bridge intellectual space with the wider community, but they are also early sites of intergenerational activism that are seen later on in Baker’s life.
At the YWCA, Baker met other strong-minded, curious, and independent young Black women eager to take advantage of Harlem’s vibrant cultural and political scene. Among them was Pauli Murray, who would later go on to become an important civil rights lawyer, Episcopal priest, and poet. Baker and Murray were good friends who shared much in common: roots from North Carolina, a thirst for social justice, and they were both employed by the Works Progress Administration. Women at the Y embodied what Barbara Ransby called a “new model of Black womanhood.” They were educated, determined, and unattached to supervising families or husbands. Baker, Murray, and others frequently engaged in stimulating conversation on how to combat poverty and racism, often moving in and out of radical political organizations as they shaped their own political identities. Moreover, these new women often chose a model of cross-class organizing to reach broader communities and achieve their goals.
Perhaps most influential to Baker’s intellectual development and organizing framework was her time with the Young Negroes Cooperative League (YNCL). Founded by eclectic socialist, anarchist, and writer George Schuler in 1930, YNCL was a part of a network of local cooperatives affiliated with others in NYC and across the country to promote economic equality, economic independence, and consumer education for blacks in the wake of the Great Depression. Baker served as the organization’s executive director out of the central office in NYC. Unlike many political organizations of the period, YNCL emphasized gender equality and an egalitarian philosophy around decision-making to promote the democratic power of the rank and file members. Also unusual for the time: YNCL did not assume a position of deference towards its older members or traditional leaders. Instead, it saw youth as leading the movement for radical change and committing to long-term goals. It was a model of intergenerational activism that embraced young people as capable and competent. Indeed, this notion of harnessing the energy and power of the youth is evident in Baker’s work with SNCC some 30 years later.
On Easter weekend 1960, student leaders from the newly galvanized southern sit-in movement gathered for a meeting at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Coaxing $800 from Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Baker had organized the meeting to harness the energy and potential of thousands of young Black students eager to challenge the Jim Crow status quo and to ask “where do we go from here?” As a mentor to SNCC leaders, Baker did not tell students what to do, but rather asked them questions designed to encourage deep and broad thinking. She emphasized the idea that “Strong people did not need strong leaders,” but rather the political education they needed to lead their own egalitarian movements. The students ended the weekend with a nonhierarchical, grassroots organizing structure, and a philosophy that touted nonviolence and “love” as the “central motif.” With Baker’s conceptual guidance, and her caution that the young people maintain autonomy from older civil rights groups, SNCC was born.
Baker could have easily taken a decidedly more mainstream path in the struggle for Black freedom by participating in an organization like the National Council of Negro Women, known for its middle propriety and ethos to “uplift the race.” However, Baker’s political education in New York and her intellectual evolution encouraged another line of thinking: provide the poor and oppressed with the tools to speak and uplift themselves. Taking her past experiences from the Harlem 135th Street Library, YWCA, and YNCL, she emphasized grassroots education, collective decision-making, indigenous leadership, and intergenerational activism to galvanize youth. With these values, Baker helped create one of the most impactful organizations of the Civil Rights Movement. While Baker remained behind the scenes of SNCC, her intellectual footprint was all over the organization.
Written by Pamela Walker, Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History, Center for Women’s History.