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Where Are Our Ella Bakers?
6/15/2016 11:12:01 AM

By Barney Blakeney

I recently got into Facebook. I figured it would be another resource for information. That thing is crazy, ya’ll. It is a good source for information and it’s instantaneous, but for computer illiterate people like me, the vastness of its scope can be intimidating. I got a scam today from somebody telling me I’ve won the Facebook Powerball lottery. I mean, can you believe that? Like all technology, you just have to be smart enough to use it properly.

But just as there’s a lot of stupid stuff going on through the social media, there’s also a lot of stimulating stuff. Recently a young brother asked, “Where are our Ella Bakers?”

I found the question unsettling. Lately I’ve been thinking there needs to be more communication between today’s young civil rights activists and activists from previous eras. One young guy made the statement that today’s activists find themselves reinventing the wheel and fighting previously fought battles. It’s a shame more of those who have been in the struggle for years don’t share their knowledge and experience with the younger generation of freedom fighters.

I was intrigued by the young man’s question because I find Ella Baker an exceptional woman. If the new age freedom fighters should learn from anybody, it should be Ella Baker. Most of us old school players can learn from her as well.

It’s only been a few years that I’ve known who Ella Baker was. Ella Josephine Baker was the woman who helped found the Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC) or Snick. I’m no historian, so I won’t try to go into a lot of detail, but Ella Baker was a giant among civil rights activists.

There are several black women today who I describe as fearless and undaunted, but Ella Baker - that woman was fire! She worked with the NAACP during the 1940s as Thurgood Marshall fought his way through the courts to win the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education. She worked behind the scenes in the male-dominated world of the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

Ella Baker wasn’t about being in the spotlight. She was about pushing others to be their most effective. She worked alongside other giants like W.E.B. DuBois, Marshall, A. Philip Randolph, and Martin Luther King, Jr. I read one book that said Baker often was the brains behind a lot of their activities and often had to fight the male chauvinist leadership of her time to make things happen.

Baker was described as a behind-the-scenes organizer who mentored and advised many of the icons who drew center stage attention. Her thing was grassroots, radical action. She schooled Rosa Parks and Stokely Carmichael. She was considered one of the most important black leaders of the 20th century and maybe the most influential black woman in the Civil Rights Movement. She was tapped to lead SCLC, but gave up the job to Martin Luther King Jr.

There were other black women who cleared the path to our freedom. The brother’s question made me think of Shirley Chisolm, the real first woman to lead a major political party as a presidential candidate. Hillary Clinton can’t hold a candle to women like Shirley Chisolm or Barbara Jordan, the first black person elected to the Texas State Senate in 1967 and then became the first woman to represent Texas since Reconstruction in the U.S. House of Representatives. Texas, ya’ll! We talkin’ George Bush, ‘drag-a-brother-to death-behind-a-pickup-truck’ Texas!

Those women were no joke. They weren’t career politicians and didn’t waffle. Speaking of waffling, Fannie Lou Hamer was nobody’s toast. She was a big-boned Mississippi woman, a working woman who picked cotton for a living. Her’s was not an easy life, but it was one she dedicated to uplifting black and poor people.

She started her activism in the early 1960s when black folks in Mississippi could lose their cotton-pickin’ jobs or their ever-lovin’ lives for standing up for civil rights. She’s quoted saying she didn’t have enough sense to be scared, and it wouldn’t have done any good since folks had been trying to kill her a little at a time all her life.

And there was our own Septima P. Clark, for whom Charleston’s crosstown expressway is named. ‘Mama Seppy’ as some called her was a teacher. She taught Rosa Parks after losing her teaching job in Charleston. We all know what Rosa Parks went on to do. It was Mama Seppy who taught Rosa to do that. I had the honor of pushing Rosa Parks around in her wheelchair at Mama Seppy’s funeral in 1987. Rosa Parks seemed a quiet storm, as beautiful as a summer sunset over the Ashley River.

To the young brother who asked where are today’s Ella Bakers, They’re out there. Don’t look for them at the center stage. They’re usually standing behind the curtains, giving directions and prompting the scripts. There are some dynamic women working for our cause, brother. And your generation will have to produce some Ella Bakers of your own.

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