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Ella Baker was born on this date in 1903. She was an African American social justice activist who was instrumental in founding the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
She was born in Norfolk, VA, the granddaughter of slaves, and began her career as an activist as a student at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., where she challenged school policies that she found demeaning. After graduating from Shaw as class valedictorian in 1927, she moved to New York City. Baker responded to the suffering she saw in Harlem during the Great Depression by joining a variety of political causes. In 1930, she joined the Young Negroes Cooperative League and was elected its first national director a year later.
Baker also became involved with several women's organizations offering literacy and consumer education to workers at the same time educating herself about radical politics. In 1940 Baker began her affiliation with the NAACP. After working as a field secretary, Baker served as director of branches from 1943 to 1946. She expanded the NAACP throughout the South, helping create the grass-roots network that provided a base for the Civil Rights Movement in the following decades. At the same time, Baker fought to make the NAACP itself more democratic by shifting the organization's emphasis away from legal battles and toward community-based activism.
Although Baker resigned from the NAACP staff in 1946, she stayed as a volunteer and, as the first woman to head the New York branch, led its fight to desegregate New York City public schools. In 1956, Ella Baker invited sit-in leaders to attend a conference at Shaw University in April 1960. From that conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was born the following October. Baker moved to Atlanta to organize the new SCLC and to run the Crusade for Citizenship, a voter registration campaign. Baker stayed at SCLC for two years, but she never accepted its policy of favoring strong central leadership over local, grass-roots politics.
Baker returned to New York in 1964 and fought for human rights until her death. Called an "unsung hero" of the Civil Rights Movement, Baker has inspired a range of political organizations including the Black Panthers, Students for a Democratic Society, and feminist groups.
Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia
Volumes 1 and 2, edited by Darlene Clark Hine
Copyright 1993, Carlson Publishing Inc., Brooklyn, New York