Known as the “God Mother of the SNCC” Ella Baker was a community activist in the truest sense of the term. This is not to discredit, the courageous works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. but Ella Baker told us the dangers of leader driven movements…and she was right.
After years of working with the NAACP, Ella Baker became a key organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Council, founded in part by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957. She worked behind the scenes organizing voter registration campaigns, conferences and initiatives. Perhaps, she is most celebrated for recognizing the power in collective youth movements. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee was formed under her guidance and launched a movement that changed the American political landscape forever. SNCC is widely known for organizing sit-ins and the 1961 Freedom Rides.
Baker’s greatest hope was that ordinary people see the power they hold within themselves. She famously stated, “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.” She cautioned against people relying on leaders, instead wanting ordinary people to take an active role in movements collectively and equally. And because of her defiance against “the messiah complex” Ella is perhaps a more dangerous figure than King for the status quo. This is because she fully represents a “Participatory Democracy”, in which people think for themselves, organize and bring about change (without the need of a leader). These types of movements are harder to stamp out.
In a leader motivated movement, once a leader is discredited, removed or assassinated, their movement struggles to regain its influence. A prime example of this was Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign that struggled immensely after his death.
Some ask if there will ever be another MLK. The answer is no and stop waiting on one. The true work comes in when people are able to mobilize without the need of charismatic leadership. As we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., let us remember a key lesson from the Civil Rights Movement. Everyone has a role to play and it starts with you. This was the heart of Ella Baker’s message.
Learn more about Ella Jo Baker.
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