Ella Baker worked for over five decades as a civil rights activist and organizer, emerging as one of the most important female figures of the Civil Rights Movement.
Baker was born on December 12, 1903 in Norfolk, Va., but was raised in Littleton, N.C. She attended Shaw University, graduating as its valedictorian in 1927 before moving to New York. While at Shaw, Baker challenged school policies which served as a precursor for the rest of her life and career.
While in New York, Baker briefly worked as an educator before marrying her high school sweetheart and joining the NAACP, working her way into directorship positions before stepping down in 1946. According to accounts, Baker felt hamstrung by some of the NAACP’s bureaucracy, challenging her more grassroots approach to activism.
In 1955, Baker began the In Friendship organization which combated some of the racist Jim Crow policies across the Deep South and raised money for the Montgomery Bus Boycotts.
This put her in alignment with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957, aiding the leader with his new organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. However, Baker’s time with the SCLC was also marred by what she felt was King’s dominance as an orator but allegedly did not see him as an effective activist.
In the late 60’s and onto the seventies, Baker kept a low profile but remained active behind the scenes as was her preference. Notoriously private, few knew about her life outside of work.