Ella Baker (1903 -1986) has always been high on my list of heroes. I do quite a bit of subbing at a school on the East Side of Manhattan that bears her name and tries very hard to live by her lights. Right in the hallway is a mural with one of her sayings:
“Strong people do not need strong leaders.”
http://www.ellabakerschool.net/site_res_view_template.aspx?id=5300d176-291a-4632-b2c6-470c874f5ebc This is a long article, and the later headings concerning her organizing, activism, and political relationship to Dr M. L. King Jr are eye-opening.
I referred to this quote often when trying to justify why the Occupy movement, having no apparent leaders, was potentially so powerful. Instead of waiting around for guidance/permission from charismatic orators, every individual is enjoined to go out and get to work. Perhaps I should emphasize “Strong people.” There has been ample evidence since that small, local efforts, and the power of one, can be equally as effective as the grand scale movements. And we can’t underestimate the power of the internet. Nevertheless, Ms Baker – I have to give credit where it’s due! Your work in the NAACP; in organizing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), set the mission of those vital groups with your clarifying passion and professionalism! Your ability to nurture the voice of every stake holder, no matter how timid, empowered them long after you were gone. That’s leadership.
I’ve been pondering the fact that many great leaders in the past learned to read with the works of philosophy and of course, sacred texts. Our early readers’ books today look pretty light-weight by comparison, right? See the current exhibit at the NY Public Library on 42nd Street for further exploration!
I am motivated to highlight this powerhouse Civil Rights leader as we mourn the events around the death of Trayvon Martin, and the countless other young lives cut short before and since. Ella Baker was deeply involved in the SNCC Voter Registration initiative of the Freedom Summer of 1964. From the biography on the Ella Baker School website (above):
‘Large numbers of white college students volunteered for Freedom Summer. Unfortunately, shortly after their arrival two students from New York, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were murdered, along with James Chaney of Mississippi. It riveted the nation’s media attention. Most Americans learned for the first time what was going on in that state.
Ella Baker was asked her reaction. “The unfortunate thing is that it took this…to make the rest of the country turn its eyes on the fact that there were other (black) bodies lying in the swamps of Mississippi. Until the killing of a black mother’s son becomes as important as the killing of a white mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest.”
These words are set to gospel in these two performances by ‘Sweet Honey in the Rock’. I decided not to choose between them!
May they both soothe your soul for the ongoing battles ahead, and provide a moment to give thanks and seek comfort in the examples of Civil Rights leaders both great and lesser known.