Ella Baker

Ella Baker and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee

On December 13, 1986, Ella Baker, civil rights leader and organizer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), died. Called “the mother of the civil rights movement” by one scholar, Baker culminated a life dedicated to civil rights work by helping to establish SNCC at her alma mater, Shaw University, in April 1960.

Raised in Virginia and Halifax County, Baker graduated from Shaw in 1927. She moved to New York in 1903 and joined the Young Negroes Cooperative League with the aim of developing black economic power through collective planning. In 1940, she began work for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as a field secretary, where she eventually rose to become the director of branches.

In 1957, Baker joined with Martin Luther King Jr. and others to organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); she was the only woman present. After the sit-ins in Greensboro, she organized the meeting at Shaw in April 1960 that gave rise to SNCC.

She advocated that the budding organization be student-directed and not under the umbrella of the SCLC. The members of SNCC were the “shock troops” of the civil rights movement, called “probably the most courageous and the most selfless” of the activists of the 1960s by John Hope Franklin.

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