The world needs to remember Ella Baker. December 13 marks both her birth and transition date. She was born December 13, 1903, and she went to be with the ancestors on December 13, 1986, at the age of 83. She was a tireless advocate for human rights and worked alongside well-known figures like W.E.B. Du Bois and A. Phillip Randolph while serving as a mentor to the likes of Diane Nash and Rosa Parks. She worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She was revered in her time, but few have heard of her today. This is partly because she worked mostly behind the scenes as an organizer. She said of herself:
“You didn’t see me on television; you didn’t see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders.”
The often overlooked and underappreciated work of Ella Baker speaks to the silencing behaviors experienced by women of color. The Black Panther Party and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were mostly comprised of or developed by black women, but history remembers the men who situated themselves as figureheads. This impulse to silence black women continues today—especially in light of the recent Hotlzclaw trial. Black women were targeted by this Oklahoma City police officer because he knew that their history of sex work and membership in a marginalized community would keep their stories from being taken seriously by those in authority—and he was right. Sitting in the courtroom listening to the questions asked of the women, it became clear that the victims of the assault were just as much on trial as Holtzclaw. Further, the fact that he was found guilty of only 18 of the counts indicates that the women were, in fact, not believed. Yes, he received a recommended sentence of over 200 years, but the truth remains that the jury still did not believe some of the women.
No, justice was not served—despite Holtzclaw’s self-pitying tears. Therefore, amid the celebrations, we should never lose sight of the fact that his plan partially worked. He knew poor black women would be viewed skeptically—and they were. If we are to empower people silenced by white supremacy, we must be intentional about doing the hard work of organizing.
Baker often said “the movement made Martin, and not Martin the movement.” These were radical statements about Martin Luther King, but Baker understood the importance of grassroots activism. For her, it was important to highlight the fact that true power lies in organizing oppressed people for action. She undermined expectations surrounding female performance while being ridiculed for her vocal and direct demeanor. Later, women in the Black Panther Party directly cited Baker as an inspiration and began to immolate her tenacity, passion for serving, and drive to bring intersectionality to the fight for equality. Commenting on the need to be intersectional in the fight against oppression, Baker said:
“Even if segregation is gone, we will still need to be free; we will still have to see that everyone has a job. Even if we can all vote, but if people are still hungry, we will not be free…”
She understood clearly that to fight oppression, one must fight all systems—not just one.
Most movements striving to counter the attacks toward black bodies have focused on the needs of those who are cis-gender. We must push the revolution/fight forward. To fight for black men, black women, and black bodies means to also fight against systems that harm black trans, gay, and bisexual members of our community. Too long there has been a deep conservatism in many black folks surrounding LGBT members of the community. If we are to fight for black liberation, we must fight for all people to be liberated. To this end we must address a concerning development in the wake of the verdict in Oklahoma City.
After the Hotlzclaw trial, those who were outraged voiced a desire for him to be sexually assaulted in prison. Imagine that. Many used the conviction of a man who committed sexual assault as an excuse to make jokes about sexual assault in prison.
When people hope that he is raped or referred to his expression of emotion as being a “pussy”- the message being sent is not only negative for survivors of gender based violence but also fuels homophobia. The underlying assumption is that the ultimate punishment for any man is to have sex with another male. Further, these comments uphold patriarchal systems that encourage men to perform in arbitrary ways to prove masculinity. Holtzclaw must be accountable for his actions, but we must take care to not promulgate homophobia as we celebrate this moment of justice.
We need to remember Ella Baker. Our efforts should always be informed by those who laid the foundation and as we continue to mobilize for equity, we must remember, as Ella showed us, that the equity for which we fight must be inclusive, expansive, and always challenging the status quo.
Ella Baker and the Limits of Charismatic Masculinity
In perhaps one of the most important biographies of a civil rights leader published, Professor Barbara Ransby has conveyed the epic life and struggle of a woman whose sheer skill, leadership, and ability to mobilize the marginalized and dispossessed to full participation in their fight for human dignity is almost unprecedented in American history. In her book, Ella Baker & The Black Freedom Movement, Professor Ransby documents the life of Ella Baker, a black woman born to a middle-class family in North Carolina in 1903 who, after witnessing the staunch spiritually based dedication of her mother to serving the poor in the South, transforms into a sheer force of will that worked with all the major civil rights organizations of her time, and helped mobilize to create two of the most crucial to the Civil Rights Movement: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Before we continue to heap a single praise or Hosanna to men like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Wyatt T. Walker, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, Paul Robeson, Thurgood Marshall, W.E.B. Du Bois, or any of these other gentlemen we idolize as embodiments of masculine heroism, we should know about one woman, of many, who had more wisdom, courage, and vision then almost all of them: Ms. Ella Baker.
What made Baker’s method of organizing both effective and revolutionary is that it completely dismissed the traditional paradigm of leadership that had plagued the black community from its earliest history in North America, stemming mostly from the black church: Charismatic masculine leadership based on oratory and exhibitionism. Baker believed in empowering the most common person, whether a sharecropper, teenager, or illiterate vagrant with skills to make demands on the political establishment. Baker believed that people did not need fancy leaders with degrees and pedigree to tell them what was best for them. She believed in giving people the power to choose their direction and make demands, and put pressure on institutions without depending on big shots with fancy suits. In her book, Professor Ransby notes:
“At every opportunity [Ella] Baker reiterated the radical idea that educated elites were not the natural leaders of Black people. Critically reflecting on her work with the NAACP, she observed, “The Leadership was all from the professional class, basically. I think these are the factors that have kept it [the NAACP] from moving to a more militant position.”
Moreover, Ella Baker was very critical of the hotshot black preachers who seemed to mesmerize their audiences with soaring oratory, then leave and expect others to implement an agenda. As Ransby further notes, at one point Ella Baker asked Dr. King directly “why he allowed such hero worship, and he responded simply, that it was what people wanted. This answer did not satisfy Baker in the least.”
Ella Baker did not mince words on her thoughts of Dr. King’s leadership style and vocally spoke out on its limitations:
“Baker described [Dr. King] as a pampered member of Atlanta’s black elite who had the mantle of leadership handed to him rather than having had to earn it, a member of a coddled “silver spoon brigade.” He wore silk suits and spoke with a silver tongue.
[…] In Baker’s eyes King did not identify enough with the people he sought to lead. He did not situate himself among them but remained above them.
[…]Baker felt the focus on King drained the masses of confidence in themselves. People often marveled at the things King could do that they could not; his eloquent speeches overwhelmed as well as inspired.”
The limitations of this charismatic masculinity noted by Ella Baker are profound, particularly in today’s political age when we have a president like Barack Obama who often tries to channel the traditions of charismatic leadership and oratory from the black tradition. Ironically, Obama has been as anemic in delivering real change and effective at stifling progress as Ella Baker worried Dr. King would have been. So perhaps in a strange twist, we have found a similarity between King and Obama after all.
Often in America, when discussing prominent black trailblazers who fought the injustices of segregation and racial oppression, we see the same images of a variety of men. I somewhat jokingly call them our superhero black male icons. This phenomenon mimics the more noxious western patriarchal fascination with viewing history as a series of events being shaped and guided by the hands of a strong capable man embodying all our fantasies about leadership, masculinity and sometimes fatherhood.
The danger of such imagery is that it often both obscures and denies the scope of nuanced factors, issues, and circumstances in shaping the events from which our societies were born. Furthermore, such narratives often exclude any consideration of female agency in effecting the great events that have transpired over time.
Barbara Ransby should be applauded for putting a halt to this tradition and setting the record straight with her towering biography Ella Baker & The Black Freedom Movement. As a man still troubled with patriarchal sexist notions, this book opened my eyes to ways in which the role of women are often neglected and intentionally obscured. Let us all read the story of Ella Baker and make sure such injustices do not continue.