Lessons to Learn from Ella Baker's Extraordinary Activism

by Peter Drier for Talking Points Memo In 1964, at the height of the civil rights movement, the o...

by Peter Drier for Talking Points Memo

In 1964, at the height of the civil rights movement, the organizer Ella Baker said: "Until the killing of black men, black mothers' sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother's sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest." Bernice Johnson Reagon later wrote “Ella's Song" based on those words, made famous by the a cappella groupSweet Honey in the Rock.

Baker's words continue to resonate today, as we witness the resurgence of a new civil rights movement, sparked by the police killings of young black men, but rooted in the underlying grievances of racial injustice around jobs, housing, schools, and the criminal justice system. As the protests spread from Ferguson to cities around the country, today's young activists can learn much from Baker's ideas. Working behind the scenes, she helped transform the Southern sit-in protests into a powerful movement for racial justice, led by young people with lots of anger and determination, but little political experience.

Late in the afternoon of February 1, 1960, four young black men—Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain, and Joseph McNeil, all students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro—visited the local Woolworth's store. They purchased school supplies and toothpaste, and then they sat down at the store's lunch counter and ordered coffee. "I'm sorry," said the waitress. "We don't serve Negroes here."

The students refused to give up their seats until the store closed. The local media reported the sit-in on television and in the newspapers. The four students returned the next day with more students. By February 5, about 300 students had joined the protest, generating more media attention and inspiring students at other colleges. By the end of March, sit-ins had spread to 55 cities in 13 states. Many students, mostly black but also white, were arrested for trespassing, disorderly conduct, or disturbing the peace.

Over Easter weekend, April 16 to 18, many of those students came to Baker's alma mater, Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., to discuss how to capitalize on the growing momentum. The fruit of the meeting was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which would expand the sit-in campaign, but also use other tactics, including freedom rides and voter registration drives, to dismantle segregation. SNCC reinvigorated the civil rights movement.

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