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Non-Mainstream Heroes
Civil Unrest

Ella Baker (1903-1986)

Teaching others to stand up and fight is how Ella Baker, an instrumental force in the turbulent Civil Rights era, is best described. While known by many, her heroism still goes unrecognized by the mainstream public.

A dynamo behind the scenes, Baker had many labels: organizer, leader and activist, as well as friend and advisor to one of the more prominent names of the decade, Martin Luther King, Jr.

Baker had a large hand in creating the organizations that helped spur the Civil Rights Movement. She and King co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Baker was also responsible for helping form the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Her remarkable career began with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, where Baker worked as an organizer in 1935, traveling throughout the nation for the cause. Baker complemented King's spokesperson role in the SCLC by taking on the less public role of inside organizer and executive director. In this position, Baker helped to construct more than 65 affiliates.

Students, both black and white, became involved in the movement, which led Baker to support the idea of a student-run organization. She encouraged young people to found SNCC, which successfully put together voter registration drives.

As if this wasn't enough, Baker was an advisor to the creation of the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party (MDFP), which helped to overturn the all-white Democratic party delegation to the party conventions.

Affectionately known as the Fundi, a Swahili word for a person who passes skills from one generation to another, Baker shaped the Civil Rights movement in the ultimate way: by doing it without seeking fame or recognition and truly making a difference.

Sweet Honey in the Rock, a Grammy award winning African American female a capella group has in their collection a song about Ella Baker, and it captures her quite beautifully. (return to top)

Ella's Song

Lyrics and music by Bernice Johnson Reagon
Songtalk Publishing Co., copyright 1981

We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers' sons
Is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers' sons

That which touches me most is that I had a chance to work with people
Passing on to others that which was passed on to me

To me young people come first, they have the courage where we fail
And if I can but shed some light as they carry us through the gale

The older I get the better I know that the secret of my going on
Is when the reins are in the hands of the young, who dare to run against the storm

Not needing to clutch for power, not needing the light just to shine on me
I need to be one in the number as we stand against tyranny

Struggling myself don't mean a whole lot, I've come to realize
That teaching others to stand up and fight is the only way my struggle survives

I'm a woman who speaks in a voice and I must be heard
At times I can be quite difficult, I'll bow to no man's word

We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

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