Ella Baker was born on this day 115 years ago and died on this day 32 years ago. She’s one of the most important political thinkers and organizers in American history. Most Americans don’t know who she is, but were we to construct a Mount Rushmore of organizers, she’d be on it.
Those who romanticize the concept of leaderless movements often misleadingly deploy Baker’s words, “Strong people don’t need [a] strong leader.” Baker delivered this message in various iterations over her fifty-year career working in the trenches of racial-justice struggles, but what she meant was specific and contextual. She was calling for people to disinvest from the notion of the messianic, charismatic leader who promises political salvation in exchange for deference. Baker also did not mean that movements would naturally emerge without collective analysis, serious strategizing, organizing, mobilizing, and consensus-building.
Baker, a lead organizer in multiple groups dating back to 1930, a colleague and critic of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, and the impetus for the 1960 formation of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), knew this better than anyone.
Although she objected to the top-down, predominately male leadership structures that were typical of groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) and the NAACP in the 1950s and ’60s, she realized the necessity for grounded, community-based leader-organizers such as sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer and Cleveland, Mississippi–based local organizer Amzie Moore. Baker was not against leadership. She was opposed to hierarchical leadership that disempowered the masses and further privileged the already privileged.
When Oprah Winfrey complained that recent protests against police violence lack leadership, she was describing the King style of leading, or at least the way in which the King legacy has been most widely branded: the reverend as the strong, all-knowing, slightly imperfect but still not-like-us type of leader.
Baker represented a different leadership tradition altogether. She combined the generic concept of leadership — “A process of social influence in which a person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task” — and a confidence in the wisdom of ordinary people to define their problems and imagine solutions.
Baker helped everyday people channel and congeal their collective power to resist oppression and fight for sustainable, transformative change. Her method is not often recognized, celebrated, or even seen except by many who are steeped in the muck of movement-building work. Yet Baker and her hardworking political progenies were essential.
I underscore this because while some forms of resistance might be reflexive and simple — that is, when pushed too hard, most of us push back, even if we don’t have a plan or a hope of winning — organizing a movement is different. It is not organic, instinctive, or ever easy. If we think we can all “get free” through individual or uncoordinated small-group resistance, we are kidding ourselves.
This is not a news flash to serious organizers, past or present. The veterans from the 1960s and ’70s (SNCC and the Black Panther Party are two of the best-known examples) held meetings, workshops, debates, strategy sessions, and reading groups to forge the consensus that enabled thousands of people to work under the same rubric and, more or less, operate out of the same playbook, splits and differences notwithstanding.
That collective effort required leaders who were accountable to one another and were not singular. There were many organizers in groups such as SNCC who modeled Baker’s brand of what sociologist Charles Payne has called “group-centered leadership.”
Rather than someone with a fancy title standing at a podium speaking for or to the people, group-centered leaders are at the center of many concentric circles. They strengthen the group, forge consensus, and negotiate a way forward. That kind of leadership is impactful, democratic, and, I would argue, more radical and sustainable than the alternatives.