Ella Baker was considered by most a strong, steadfast leader and a black hero to the civil rights movement. Born on December 13, 1903, in Northfolk, Virginia, Baker moved and grew up in North Carolina when she was around 7 or 8. On both her mother and father’s parents were born into slavery on plantations (Hayden, Thrasher, 1977). Her inspiration for leadership and correcting social injustices came from her grandmother on her mother’s side. Her grandmother would tell her stories of slave revolts against owners and others. One story that stuck to her was when her grandmother refused to marry a man that her slave owner had chosen for her. She’d been whipped for this refusal and this sparked interest in young Baker.
Baker completed her undergraduate degree from what is now Shaw University where she was class valedictorian. After some research and reviewing the transcripts of her oral history I find that college at the time was a little different than most. Shaw University was once a Baptist boarding school and college in Raleigh, North Carolina (Townes, 2013). While at Shaw we see that courage as she challenged the rules but never to the point of expulsion. Baker raised questions to the President of the college and others. One instance involved singing, Ella was asked to sing “Go Down, Moses” to northern whites who were visiting the college, she declined. After completing her degree, she went to New York City where she found a world of culture and organizations. Her inspiration for her grandmother’s resilience in the face of racism helped her in making her decision to put her thoughts into action in New York City.
Historians and their role in women in the movement
Historians over the years have gotten one fact right about Baker, her resilience was one that leads her to the forefront or behind the front line in the movement. Miller (2016), suggest that her leadership qualities and other black female activist from the movement were dependent on their rhetoric. Other historians have jumped on the bandwagon suggesting that her contributions to the movement were her invitational rhetoric (Carey, 2014). Rhetoric is defined for this paper by Webster’s dictionary (2017) a language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect on its audience but often regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful content. The failure of rhetorical critics to preserve the speeches of black female activists is at the root of the problem.
Historians are making a note to examine female activist rhetoric’s as it pertains to history not just the civil rights movement. We can see examples of this powerful and overlooked rhetoric’s from some of the most influential women of any movement for the empowerment of blacks. For instance, the anti-lynching campaign by Ida B. Wells, or education activism of teachers like Anna Julia Cooper, or “Blueswomen” by Bessie Smith, are just a few examples.
The rhetoric of these women whether oral, written or visuals are important in history, it shows the complexities of black women in America. It is important not to analyze black women’s rhetoric by the standards of Aristotle or Martin Luther King Jr. Doing this would be a disservice to the realities of what is to be a black woman. The story of who these influential women were needs to be told free of the men who might’ve been in the room at the time.
Aspects of Leadership and dilemmas
Leadership is situation-specific as well as person-specific. What works for one won’t work for all in terms of leadership that is. Ella Bakers take on leadership was called transformational leadership. A fairly new term that is defined as a process where leaders and their followers raise one another to higher levels of morality and motivation (Manktelow, 2017). Bakers style of leadership demonstrated how rhetoric could empower members of the community to make their own decisions on how to move forward. This style of leadership changes the way we define leadership and takes a non-traditional route.
In Miller (2016), description of leadership it includes one’s ability to use symbols in order to shape worldviews of others. Bakers didn’t use these symbols to make others act as she would have rather what they deemed necessary and appropriate. She’d called upon the community by asking them “all to perform the leadership function” (Mille, 2016). Baker positioned individuals to take her words and empower others and those people would be able to empower others.
Before Baker was to give her speech, the Civil Rights Movement was in limbo. It was unclear as to what the goals and therefore the direction of the movement was headed in. According to Miller (2016), Charles Stewart referred to this moment in history as an “evolutionary struggle.” There were some people who wanted to continue on the traditional route, others separatism from whites. In the words of Miller, rhetors promoted different tactics and assured the people that the movements goals etc. were up for debate and change.
At this time King was promoting integration whilst changing the way whites saw blacks. On the other hand, you had Stokley Carmichael who promoted ideas of separatism and the building of the black wall street. These different ideas divided the movement and activist alike and pushed it in different directions. The non-violence movement had run its course before King’s death in 1968 and the shift toward the “black power” and Black Panther Party had already begun. With the uncertainty of the direction of the movement, people found themselves struggling to find a place in whatever the movement had become.
The role of black women in the world
The Institute of the Black World invited Baker to give a speech about her views on the role of black women in the world, which she used as an opportunity to speak on the issues involving the movement (Miller, 2016). Baker had a conversational styled speech set her apart from the rest of the leaders during that time. She used this to her advantage while she spoke offering a radically different vision involving the movement as a whole. Baker’s rhetoric emphasized the need for decentralized leadership, where the energy and organization came solely from the communities itself. This decentralized approach took the power away from hierarchical organizations. For Baker, this wasn’t a new strategy as Miller (2016), points out that Carey suggested she “engaged in group-centered leadership philosophy in her guidance of SNCC Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee students and local civil rights activist.”
Bakers desire for a more democratic model of the civil rights organization allowed her to empower the community and downplay her leadership role. It allowed others to identify with her which encourages active listening, and self-empowerment. Miller does an excellent job in highlighting Baker’s conversational eloquence and how it differs from other leaders. They start by explaining the role of black women’s stories and how it showed their commitments and love for their communities.
Baker believed that black women had to sacrifice and show love for their communities in order to obtain full freedom (Miller, 2016). Greene argues that the freedom black women waned was not so much for the community but equality for women, in her journal Women in the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. As stated before storytelling was a part of what made the women of the movement different. To show how much black women sacrificed for their communities, Baker tells stories of an enslaved woman killing her 13 children with her own hands so they didn’t suffer slavery (Miller, 2016). It is this individual sacrifice that was made by black women all over for the communal betterment. Greene suggests that it is this very sacrifice that shows a “longer civil rights movement” than it is pointed out in the history books.
Baker argued that if the community used their love for others it would provide them the strength with continuing the fight towards full freedom. She also argued that black women were an integral part of the movement stating “I don’t think you could go through the Freedom Movement without finding that the backbone of the support of the Movement were sic women. When demonstrations took place and when the community acted, usually it was some woman who came to the fore.” Like others involved in the civil rights movement, Baker believes that ordinary or unfamous women were the backbone.
Her storytelling and conversational style related to the people and solidified her authority without outwardly confirming. Miller suggests that by Baker telling stories of slave mothers positioned her as a trusted source. She’d adopted the persona of an elder during her speech by saying “I think that perhaps because I have existed much longer than you and have to some extent maintained some degree of commitment to a goal of full freedom that is the reason Vincent Harding invited me to come down as an exhibit of what might possibly be the goal of some of us to strive toward.” Her transparency in her speeches allowed her to connect better with her audience, they weren’t used to it.
I found the Miller approach to Bakers rhetoric was different from other historians. Other historians viewed black female activist as replaceable. Their speeches were less influential and empowering than say those of King or Carmichael. So much emphasis was put on men in the movement the women were considered silent leaders. Black women’s leadership was embedded in their rhetoric both orally and visually.
Bakers transformational leadership style helped in reorganizing the hierarchical organizational way of thinking. It helped her during her conversational speeches in empowering the people to empower themselves to find the solution. She brought obtainable goals such as full freedom, to the table while quieting any thoughts individuals may have had in leaving the movement. Miller points that her speech shows how collect empowerment enables movements to move even in the face of violence from external forces. As a leader, she empowered the masses not just certain groups of people to continue the fights. Ella Baker’s conversational style and transformational leadership, made her a force to be reckoned with. By empowering others and naming unfamous women who were apart of the movement she gave voices to the silent leaders.