Ella Baker (1903—1986) played an instrumental role in the development of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Baker was born in Norfolk, Virginia, and grew up in rural Littleton, North Carolina. After graduating from Shaw University, she organized consumer cooperatives in New York and worked on consumer affairs for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). In the 1940s Baker became a national field secretary of the NAACP, traveling throughout the country organizing branches and developing membership drives. Increasingly,Baker became disaffected with the NAACP's leadership, because decision-making occurred primarily in the national office rather than in the branch organizations. You see Ella Baker believed in the peoples power of the masses not just a few so-called prominent leaders.
In 1957 Baker joined King to help found the SCLC. She directed the SCLC national office and was instrumental in coordinating major civil disobedience actions. She became critical of the SCLC because of its emphasis on charismatic leadership. She faced the resentment of the male dominated leadership of the SCLC head on. Once she realized their direction wasn’t in tune with her’s she moved on.
In 1960 Baker was the principal organizer in helping student protesters establish the SNCC. She solicited funds for SNCC and assisted in planning strategies for voter registration drives and desegregation campaigns. Baker eventually broke with the SCLC after she disagreed with ministers who felt that SNCC should simply be an arm of the SCLC, rather than an independent organization. Although she preferred working behind the scenes to playing a public leadership role, she is widely regarded by scholars as one of the central leaders in the Black Freedom movement.
The 83 years of Ella Baker's full life were so remarkable and she touched so many people of all colors in American history. Her life was indeed bigger than any hamburger served at a lunch counter. It was Ella Baker's mission to serve others not serve herself and that was the beauty that defined her life.