Building a Grassroots Organization

Ella Baker was born in North Carolina. She was especially close to her grandmother, a former slave and became aware of racial injustice through her stories. Ella graduated from Shaw University and after graduation became an editorial assistant for the Negro National News. Early in her career, she became adept at creating social action groups. This would become her life’s work.

Ella joined the NAACP, and over time became its highest ranking woman. She was a strong advocate for building organizations from the ground level and fought against top-heavy organizations. Ella was great at networking and developed supporters all across the South who believed in the emerging civil rights movement.

She helped launch the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and became its Executive Director. She and Martin Luther King (MLK) had very divergent views on the direction SCLC should go. She thought that MLK was more interested in giving speeches than building a grass roots organization. She ultimately resigned from the SCLC.

Subsequently Ella was one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Her belief in grassroots organizations was critical to the direction SNCC would take. She warned against charismatic leader-centered organizations. The Freedom Rides through the South which focused on voter registration were an example of the bottom-up approach she espoused. Ella also mentored a number of young people who would become known for their work on civil rights.

Hidden heroes are often the backbone of organizations which are led by better known persons. Ella Baker was very instrumental in her desire to remain in the background. She didn’t believe that organizations focused around a strong leader would flourish unless there was a strong grassroots base. She is perhaps the most influential, but least known hero of the Civil Rights movement.

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“My theory is strong people don’t need strong leaders.” – Ella Baker

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