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.

JamAllen2-nb-smallJessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & BlackBloggersConnect.com. To reach JAM, email her at OurLegaci@gmail.com.

Follow OurLegaci on Facebook at Facebook.com/OurLegaci.

15 thoughts on “Why I’m Celebrating Ella Baker On MLK Day

  1. I didn’t learn about Ella Baker until I was in college. She was a great woman and the civil rights movement would not have been the same without her.

  2. Love! This sums up a thought I’m having about someone now who feels he is leading the charge, but i feel we don’t need that. We are educated more and should be each responsible for or post in the movement. How we speak, vote, teach.

    Such a great post! Thank you!

  3. Thank you for this insight of the different types of leadership present. It speaks to a people; a Black people who had enough understanding to determine their lives and destiny.

    Please share more……

    1. No problem Khalil! I think more of us need to understand that leadership doesn’t always mean standing in the front. But almost always, the best type of leadership is when members of the collective are equally present and equally valued. That prevents movements from being easily destroyed.

  4. Thank you for enlightening me on Ella Baker. And you’re right – all of us are leaders in our communities. Why we can’t seem to embrace this is beyond me. The opportunities are available. We need to stop waiting and start doing.

  5. Madame Ella Baker’s words are truer today then they have ever been. MLK was chosen by the system as an alternative face over the more militant approach of ” by any means necessary”Malcolm X. The Black community did not choose MLK as their leader no more then any other group chose a “leader” in the US to express their consternation against oppression. The Chinese community never chose a “leader” to speak for them..nor do Jews or any other ethnic group. Why would Blacks have to have a spokes person or “leader”. The whole MLK thing was to provide an icon and pretense for peaceful action towards the system instead of more aggressive ones.

  6. Thank you for this article. I enjoy reading “Our Legaci”. I wish school teachers all over would read this website then introduce it to their students.


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