Ella Jo Baker remains largely unknown to the general public. Born in 1903 in Norfolk, Virginia, Baker was the granddaughter of proud and defiant ex-slaves. With the support of her parents who made many sacrifices to further their daughter’s education, Baker graduated from North Carolina’s Shaw University as the valedictorian of her 1927 class. Almost immediately after graduation, she left the South for New York City and immersed herself in the excitement of the Harlem Renaissance. It wasn’t long before she was participating actively in a variety of organizations to help people secure their rights and enhance their economic opportunities. All of this led eventually to her assuming a leadership position in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) – the preeminent Black advocacy group in the United States since its founding in 1909. As Director of Branches for the NAACP, Baker was especially effective in maintaining contact with the Association’s grassroots membership and pushed hard for education and training programs to prepare rank and file people from throughout the South for leadership roles. In the 1950s, Baker was the first Executive Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) – the organization that grew out of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and supported Dr. Martin Luther King’s efforts to combat racism. In 1960, she left the SCLC to launch the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) – the group set up to sustain the student protest movement that began so dramatically on February 1, 1960, when four Black students from the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina staged a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in downtown Greensboro to protest racial discrimination.
Throughout all of this work, Baker stressed the value of learning, growth, and the development of grassroots leadership. She saw herself primarily as an adult educator and a cultivator of untapped leadership. Every cause, in her view, simmered with opportunities for education. Taking the time to think through the issues, to cast off worn out assumptions, and to plan reflectively for the long term mattered most to her. She maintained that social action yielded valuable learning when sufficient time was set aside for reflection and dialogue.
She held steadfastly to her belief that leaders are at their best when supporting ordinary people to lead themselves. She believed in leadership, but she particularly believed that the most effective leaders are self-effacing people, more interested in developing leadership in others than in getting recognition for their individual achievements. When asked by an interviewer to explain how you organize people, she said matter of factly that you don’t start with what you think. You start with what they think. She continued, “You start where the people are. Identification with people…If you talk down to people, they can sense it. They can feel it.”
Baker’s goal of identifying with the people, of learning about their goals and desires and building from there, shows examples of servant leadership. While working for the NAACP, Baker strived to be a servant-first. If her leadership did not help those served to grow as persons, then it lacked any real value in her life. She also invested great effort in the teaching function of leadership and the role she might play in transforming a seemingly ordinary action into something momentous that…