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Biden called Ella Baker a giant of the civil rights movement. Her life was extraordinary.

Baker believed in the power of grassroots activism, and she spent her life fighting injustice.

Ella Baker in 1941, when she was working as an NAACP representative.
Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

When Joe Biden accepted the nomination to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for president on Thursday night, he began by quoting Ella Baker.

“Ella Baker, a giant of the civil rights movement, left us with this wisdom: Give people light and they will find a way,” he said. “Give people light. Those are words for our time. The current president has cloaked America in darkness for much too long. Too much anger. Too much fear. Too much division.

“Here and now, I give you my word: If you entrust me with the presidency, I will draw on the best of us, not the worst. I will be an ally of the light, not of the darkness,” he said.

Throughout his speech, the contrast between light and shadow was a guiding metaphor. “We can choose the path of becoming angrier, less hopeful, and more divided — a path of shadow and suspicion,” he said later on. “Or we can choose a different path, and together, take this chance to heal, to be reborn, to unite. A path of hope and light.”

And in his conclusion, Biden echoed Baker’s words again, saying that “love is more powerful than hate. Hope is more powerful than fear. Light is more powerful than dark,” before calling for “love and hope and light to join in the battle for the soul of the nation.”

In his book I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle, sociologist Charles Payne characterized the American civil rights movement as being made up of two traditions. There was the community-mobilizing tradition, focused on large, short-term events and exemplified by Martin Luther King Jr. And there was a community-organizing tradition, which focused on the slow, long-term work of developing leadership among ordinary people. That branch, he writes, is exemplified by Ella Baker.

Who was civil rights activist Ella Baker?

Baker was born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1903. Her grandmother had been a slave; she told Ella stories about life under slavery, which ignited in the young girl a desire to fight for justice. She graduated as valedictorian from Shaw University in 1927 and moved to New York City, where she began her life’s work as an activist. (The New York Public Library is the site of her archives, for which the library has published a PDF introduction.)

Baker saw that economic justice was a key part of the struggle for freedom in general and for Black Americans in particular, saying that even if everyone suddenly had the right to vote, “People cannot be free until there is enough work in this land to give everybody a job.” In 1932, she joined and soon became the national director for the Young Negroes Cooperative League, which was formed in 1931 — at the height of the Great Depression — to seek Black economic power through collective networks.

By the late 1930s, Baker was working with the NAACP, and in 1940 she became a field secretary for the organization, traveling, recruiting, fundraising, and organizing, particularly in the South. In 1943, she became its director of branches, which made her the highest-ranking woman in the organization.

Baker’s travels and her networks in the South would become a foundation of her belief that leadership and change start at the grassroots level. She advocated for the inclusion of ordinary organization members — particularly women and young people — in the decision-making process of the organization. Baker left her full-time position with the NAACP in 1946 after taking in her niece, but joined the New York chapter as a volunteer. By 1952, she was its president.

In 1956, a month after the Montgomery bus boycotts, Baker co-founded In Friendship, an organization dedicated to helping grassroots activists who were “suffering economic reprisals” in their fight against Jim Crow laws in the South. In 1957, she moved to Atlanta and helped Dr. King organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), becoming instrumental in the organization’s voter registration campaigns and many other activities.

But Baker left the SCLC in 1960 after four Black students staged a sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. She had been frustrated by what she saw as the bureaucracy of the SCLC, including, at times, King’s leadership style, which depended partly on his status as a celebrity and what she described as a kind of “hero worship.”

She also challenged the traditional paradigm in the civil rights movement of charismatic masculine leadership that privileged stirring oration over hands-on organizing. “In Baker’s eyes, King did not identify enough with the people he sought to lead,” historian Barbara Ransby writes in her book Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement. “He did not situate himself among them but remained above them.”

And she saw that student activists, who were young but courageous, were an asset to the greater movement. In April 1960, she organized a meeting at Shaw University for the students who led the sit-ins, and out of that meeting came the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

A group of black and white college students march in heavy winter coats, with signs reading, “End the five-year waiting list for public housing,” “DC needs low cost housing,” and “Fathers belong with families.”
Members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) picketing the Bureau of Housing Licenses and Inspection, Washington, DC, February 8, 1964.
Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images

SNCC became an integral part of the civil rights movement. Its members helped organize the Freedom Rides in 1961, in which citizens protested segregation in bus terminals. In 1964, SNCC activists helped organize Freedom Summer, a voter registration drive in Mississippi that helped make racism in the state a matter of national concern when violence directed at activists from the KKK and state and local law enforcement made the news. SNCC’s bedrock principle was nonviolent direct action, and it yielded powerful results.

In 1964, Baker helped form the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which challenged the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party and its pro-segregationist stance. They had a three-pronged agenda: To push the Democratic Party to stand against all-white primaries; to defend voting rights for Black Americans; and to promote and advocate for poor Black Southerners.

The MFDP sent a delegation to the Democratic National Convention in 1964, and their presence forced the Democratic Party to face its own racist heritage, as well as the contemporary views of the white Dixiecrats who formed part of their base. The MFDP was not seated at the convention, but its presence helped force a future rule change that allowed women and minorities to be delegates at the Democratic National Convention and set the groundwork for the Voting Rights Act.

Baker, in a dress with a diamond print and a pill box hat covered in flowers, speaks emphatically into a group of microphones featuring the logos of news organizations like WINS, NBC, and EPI.
Ella Baker, official of the Southern Conference Educational Fund, speaks at the Jeannette Rankin news conference on Jan. 3, 1968. At Baker’s side is actress Ruby Dee.
AP Photo/Jack Harris

In the 1960s, Baker also worked with the Southern Conference Education Fund, which aimed to help educate Southern white people about racism and advocate for Black and white people working together for racial and social justice.

Baker went back to New York City in 1967, where she lived until she passed away in 1986. She spent the rest of her life as an activist, advocating for socialism, the release of imprisoned activist Angela Davis, Puerto Rican independence, the anti-apartheid movement, and women’s rights.

Biden’s invocation of Baker’s name was significant in many ways

In the years since her death, Baker has been celebrated in various ways — she’s been the subject of many biographies, and in 2009, she was on a postage stamp — but her name has never been as familiar to many Americans as Dr. King or other civil rights movement leaders of her era. “Baker was a strategist, organizer and mother to the movement whose political acumen, humble leadership style and razor sharp political insights were legendary,” Ransby wrote in the New York Times earlier this year. “It’s a reflection of our selective amnesia that few people know her name.”

But Biden citing her as the guiding light of his presidential campaign seemed significant to those who were aware of American history and Baker’s legacy. And some, including Ransby, questioned whether Baker’s full history of activism and belief in the need to dismantle systems of oppression (including capitalism) would sit well with Biden:

Others saw it as a hopeful sign:

Overall, it served to highlight how central her philosophy of organizing has become to the Democratic Party. Much of the convention worked to honor grassroots organizing and figures who were not household names, and speakers from Michelle Obama to Biden himself worked to emphasize that the party believes ordinary people have the power to foment significant change. Even if Biden may not agree with all of Baker’s views, her prominence in his speech was a powerful reminder of her radical commitment to justice and freedom — and one that did not just spotlight who she was, but the need for everyone to engage in the struggle, whatever the cost.

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