Who was Ella Josephine Baker? Ella Baker was an African-American civil rights and human rights activist.

Her career spanned more than five decades. She experienced prejudice in Norfolk, where she lived, when a race riot in which whites attacked black workers from the shipyard.

Baker first worked as an editorial assistant at the Negro National News. In 1930 George Schuyler, a black journalist and anarchist founded the Young Negroes Cooperative League. Having befriended Schuyler, Baker joined his group in 1931. Baker also worked for the Workers Education Project of the Works Progress Administration, established under President Roosevelt. Ella taught courses in consumer education, labor history, and African history. Baker immersed herself in the cultural and political milieu of Harlem in the 1930s.

From 1957-1960, Baker went to a conference in Atlanta aimed at developing a new regional organization to build on the success of the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama. Eventually, after a second conference in February, the Southern Christian Leading Conference. This was planned as a loosely structured coalition of church-based leaders who were engaged in civil rights struggles across the South. The group wanted to emphasize the use of nonviolent actions to bring about social progress and racial justice for southern blacks. The SCLC leaders envisioned themselves as the political arm of the black church.

Baker’s job with the SCLC was more frustrating than fruitful. She was unsettled politically, physically, and emotionally. She had no solid allies in the office. In 1960, on the heels of regional desegregation sit-ins led by black college students, Baker persuaded the SCLC to invite southern university students to the Southwide Youth Leadership at Shaw University on Easter weekend. This gathering was a sit in to assess their struggles, and explore possibilities for future actions. Baker saw the potential for a special type of leadership by the young sit-in leaders, who were not yet prominent in the movement. She believed they could revitalize the Black Freedom Movement and take it in a new direction.

From 1962-1967 Ella worked on the staff of Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF.) The goal was to help black and white people work together for social justice; the interracial desegregation and human rights group was based in the south. SCEF raised funds for black activists, lobbied for implementation of John F. Kennedy’s civil rights proposals, and tried to educate southern whites about the evils of racism.

In 1967, Baker returned to New York City, where she continued her activism. She later collaborated with Arthur Kinoy and others to form the Mass Party Organizing Committee, a socialist organization. Ella remained an activist until her death on Dec. 13, 1986–her 83rd birthday.