Portraits of Black Resistance: Honoring Ella Baker

February 1, 2023

Kelsey Maddox, DEI Specialist

This year’s theme for Black History Month is Black Resistance, highlighting those who have helped on the journey to equality. Throughout our history, there have been many people who have gone unnoticed, but their impact and perseverance have helped in the fight for freedom. One of those lesser-known individuals is Ella Baker. Ella played an important role in some of the most influential organizations of the time, which include the NAACP, Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Ella was born on December 13, 1903, in Norfolk, Virginia. Her family would move to North Carolina, where Ella would develop a sense of social justice from her grandmother’s stories about her life living in slavery. Her grandmother’s pride and resilience in the face of injustice and racism sparked the inspiration for Ella throughout her life. She studied at Shaw University in Raleigh, where as a student she challenged the school’s policies that she felt were unfair. Ella graduated valedictorian in 1927 and then moved to NYC and began joining social activist organizations.

Ella would begin her involvement with the NAACP in 1940, where she would work as a field secretary and then later served as Director of Branches from 1943-1946. In1950, Ella was inspired by the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, and co-founded the In Friendship organization that raised money to fight against Jim Crow Laws. Then in 1957, she would move to Atlanta to help organize Martin Luther King’s new organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

After the historic sit-ins of February 1960 in North Carolina, Ella left the SCLC to assist the new student activists. She would organize a meeting at her alma mater, Shaw University, with the students who participated in the sit-ins and created the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). While active in the SNCC, Ella helped with the Freedom Rides in 1961, helped register black voters during the 1964 elections, and helped make the SNCC one of the foremost advocates for human rights in the United States.

Ella is known as “Fundi,” the Swahili word for a person who teaches a craft to the next generation. She is one of the unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, economic and racial justice, and has inspired students’ dreams of a better world.

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