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Mentor to a generation.

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: a Radical Democratic Vision by Barbara Ransby University of North Carolina Press. 470 pages. $34.95.

The names are more than familiar: King, the martyr, Abernathy, the point-man, Young and Jackson, the youthful disciples, Du Bois, the elder, and Wilkins, the race-man bureaucrat. Some thirty-nine years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the marquee names of the civil rights movement have been etched into our memories. The Great Man Theory of Racial Uplift holds that a handful of extraordinary personalities molded a radical, humanitarian vision after the Second World War and, by grit, charisma, and force of individual will, overthrew American apartheid. In this schema, the civil rights movement was assassinated on April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. This is a profoundly undemocratic view of the century's most recognizable movement for democracy.

In recent years, the work of civil rights historians such as John Dittmer, Charles Payne, Lynn Olson, and Chana Kai Lee has focused on the democratic inclusion of everyday people, local organizations, and women in our understanding of the civil rights movement. Barbara Ransby's long-awaited and excellent biography of Ella Baker fits into this trend. Until recently, Ella Baker has been one of those tantalizing figures who dwell in the historical penumbras--present everywhere, but always just out of focus. She was a formative influence in three of the movement's most indispensable organizations: the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which she helped to found. Baker was a mentor to an entire generation of activists and an indispensable critic-ally of Martin Luther King Jr.

On one level, Ella Baker's low profile is a product of the patriarchal practices that characterized many of the organizations she worked with. She, along with her contemporaries Daisy Bates, Pauli Murray, Shirley Graham Du Bois, and Louise Thompson Patterson, worked with men who subordinated other issues to the allegedly all-encompassing race question. At the same time, however, Baker contributed to the haze surrounding herself. If the personal is political, she opted to keep certain politics to herself. Baker, as Ransby notes early on, was fiercely private--maintaining long-term friendships and activist ties with people who had no idea that she was even married. "Black women of Ella Baker's generation [were] vilified and stereotyped by whites and often circumscribed to a limited sphere of activity by black men," Ransby writes. In shielding her life from public view, Ransby argues, Baker avoided "being sized up and assigned an identity with narrow borders." Moreover, her vision of democratic politics was explicitly grassroots-oriented; she distrusted grand, charismatic figures--a position that would bring her into eventual conflict with King. By deemphasizing the individual, Baker hoped to create an egalitarian environment within her organizations and the communities they served.

In Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement, Barbara Ransby has written an intriguing and nuanced biography. This is an activist study; Ransby's treatment of Baker's life is not so much intent upon installing her name on the civil rights marquee as it is concerned with distilling the principles that Baker advocated and conveying her approach to social change. Baker was less interested in traditional concepts of "leadership" than she was in nurturing "education that leads to self-directed action." In these pages, she emerges as a democratic example--a woman who prided herself on dressing simply, doing the nuts-and-bolts organizing that others shunned, and speaking to people in terms that were readily understood.

Ransby's well-written biography succeeds despite uncooperative source material. One consequence of Baker's concern with privacy is that information on some aspects of her life is scarce. For her part, Ransby does an excellent job of creating context, applying some theories of personality development, and making informed conjectures--while managing to avoid overreaching her evidence.

Born in turn-of-the-century Norfolk, Virginia, to a middle class black family, Baker descended from a long line of independent spirits. Her maternal grandmother, Bet Ross, was a former slave who would defy orders even when whipping or being put out to plow fields was the consequence. Baker's mother, Anna, a gifted speaker who later filled in for her daughter at NAACP functions, was active within black Baptist organizations and earned a reputation for deferring to neither the racial nor the gender etiquette of the era. Ella, the second of three children, was educated at Shaw Academy, a North Carolina boarding school founded by missionaries, and later at Shaw University, where she graduated as valedictorian.

Baker was raised with a cultivated sense of social obligation--part Christian cooperation, part Negro noblesse oblige. But at Shaw, strains of her later activism began to emerge (she was selected to protest the university's policy banning the wearing of silk stockings on campus). She graduated from Shaw in 1927 and migrated to New York, where she caught the tail end of the Harlem Renaissance and was first exposed to the socialist radicalism that was to inform her worldview. She became a leader in the economic cooperative movement alongside the irascible columnist George Schuyler. By the time she accepted a job as an assistant field secretary for the NAACP in 1940, Baker was a seasoned activist and community organizer.

The NAACP--where she eventually rose to the post of director of branches--was then headed by Walter White, whose leadership philosophy diametrically opposed Baker's. (White would go on to force W.E.B. Du Bois out of the organization and to block the return of William Pickens, who preceded Baker as field secretary.) Predictably, the two clashed, but Baker remained with the organization until 1946, overseeing the vast expansion of the NAACP to more than 500,000 members.

Baker's conflicts with powerful and egotistical black male leaders was to become a theme, and Ransby's treatment of such gender politics is one of the strengths of the biography. Neither White nor King was accustomed to stringent criticism from female colleagues.

Two of Baker's male peers, however, were capable of viewing Baker as an equal. Stanley Levison and Bayard Rustin, along with Baker, created In Friendship, an organization dedicated to providing aid that would offset the economic pressure on activists in the deep South. It was Levison and Rustin, in fact, who suggested to Martin Luther King that Ella Baker coordinate the SCLC'S Crusade for Citizenship. Baker respected King's talent and distrusted his charisma in equal measure. She was also critical of the tendency to overlook his philandering and that of other clergy associated with the organization.

Within three years, Baker had pushed SCLC to create the autonomous youth organization SNCC in response to the growing nationwide sit-in movement. Her involvement with SNCC was to culminate in her participation in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and its attempt to unseat the segregationist Mississippi Democrats at the 1964 Presidential convention. Baker mentored many of the young SNCC activists to political maturity only to find these relationships strained by the move toward black power in the mid-1960s.

In the wake of SNCC'S dissolution, Baker worked with the Southern Conference Education Fund and the Free Angela Davis Committee. She was a career activist.

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement is one of those rare compelling works by a biographer who unabashedly admires her subject. In many instances, that kind of relationship short-circuits a biographer's critical perspective.

To her credit, Ransby reckons with Baker's contradictions. In detailing the conflicts between King and Baker, Ransby leaves open the possibility that Baker may have been too hard on him--notwithstanding the preacher's difficulty in viewing women as equals in leadership. Ransby also raises the thorny subject of Baker's role in the anti-communist purges within the postwar NAACP, which she later regretted.

Ultimately, this biography works both as a narrative and as an activist study. Ransby has done much to carry Baker's legacy from margin to center and to bring her historical image into focus.

William Jelani Cobb is an assistant professor of history at Spelman College and editor of "The Essential Harold Cruse: A Reader."
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Author:Cobb, William Jelani
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Nov 1, 2003
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