Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement

What, exactly, was democratic about Baker and the many hundreds that she worked with? 

“A democracy”, as John Dewey once said, “is having faith in other people to do the right thing at the right time”. Ella Baker and the various organizations and organizers she worked with had this faith not just in African Americans, but in all the people of any race. There is simply no other reason for their efforts to equalize economically and politically across racial and class lines. They had faith that the poor could do great things if they had fair and just opportunities to do so. They had faith that African Americans were capable of leading the country in a better direction, if they were given a chance on equal footing. But they also had faith in the elite aristocracy’s ability to lead the nation, given in that their cause did not consistently advocate complete anarchy or move towards communism. Democracy was not the enemy, those who failed to practice it were. White supremacy, Jim Crowe, and the apartheid south were the enemy, not the founding principles of democracy.

Ella was raised by her mother to know and understand class and race did not dictate overall intelligence and ability (pg.19).  She spent time learning about democracy in Harlem against a backdrop of the Great Depression, and she advocated democracy and worked to break up the enemies of democracy by visiting the members of the NAACP people directly, spending time with them rather than just leading meetings in the town center. This indicates a true sincerity towards making change happen, not for herself, but for the people she worked so hard for. She worked for the betterment of race relations to make a better democratic republic.

What unique contributions did Baker make to the burgeoning and diverse Black Freedom Movement? 

Baker had a unique background that allowed her to continue to practice what she preached when she obtained higher levels of status within the NAACP. Many leaders coming from poor or lower class roots changed once they were put in charge or obtained a leadership position. But because Baker was raised in a substantial middle-class black neighborhood (and would routinely outreach to poorer black neighborhoods) she was taught at an early age that a life of service is never completed. On page 209, a perfect Baker quote is cited, “I never worked for an organization but for a cause.” This speaks volumes about her true commitment to the organizations she worked with and for. Baker left the NAACP because she felt it was “falling short of its present possibilities” and “the full capacities of the staff have not been used” and “there is little chance of mine being utilized in the immediate future”. (pg.146) It was a resignation based on lack of focus on the true meaning of the organization, not one due to lack of advancement towards leadership.

Can we call Baker a populist?

Baker was a populist by proxy, because she didn’t advocate for all the poor all the time, but instead the African American poor most of the time, she was not advocating on behalf of the people. Populist beliefs are popular, and she was not in favor of pursuing the popular ideals at the time, such as the belief in white supremacy. As unjust and evil as the pursuits of racist ideals are, they were during her time popular. Baker did not need to be populist, Baker needed to be an advocate of an oppressed race of people in a democratic country. Baker perhaps, could not be a populist as it would undermine her efforts to bring justice and equal rights to a race of people who needed her. Baker’s life was a series of desperate situations brought on by years and decades – millennia even, of ignorance and wanton hate. Baker was not a populist because it was more important for her to focus on African Americans and equal rights.