36 pages 1 hour read

Barbara Ransby

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2003

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Summary and Study Guide


Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement was written by Barbara Ransby and published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2003. The book is a biography of Ella Baker, the mother of the civil rights movement, whose work ushered in a new pro-democracy era that saw the importance of fighting for one’s civil rights as important to the survival of the democratic project. Ransby follows the winding tale of Baker’s life, chronicling her work teaching and inspiring the leaders of the Black Freedom Movement. Ransby is a professor of history at the University of Illinois, Chicago. She has a long history as a civil rights scholar and activist, and has contributed greatly to the understanding of women’s roles in the civil rights movement.


Ella Baker was born in Virginia in 1903 but lived all over the South, from Atlanta to Birmingham to the depths of Mississippi, during the height of white resistance to the black movement for civil rights. Though she jumped from one movement to another, from one city to another, she developed a consistent understanding of the quest for liberty. She sought to center poor black lives and local communities, engaging them to buy in to the liberation struggles for themselves. She mentored numerous young activists to follow her lead in prioritizing and uplifting local community leaders rather than dropping in and taking over the struggle. Her quiet, calm, Socratic work of asking the right questions, listening to the right people, and lifting up the right voices made her an invisible but important mover and shaker in the 1950s and ’60s struggle for civil rights. Her hand was in everything, most importantly the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee, or SNCC. She also worked for the NAACP when it formed in the 1940s and for the South Christian Leadership Coalition (of which Martin Luther King Jr. was an integral part) when it started in the 1950s.


From Baker’s beginnings as a middle-class daughter of an activist mother, to the solidarity she found with Harlem’s working class in the 1930s, to managing conferences and leadership training for people across the South in the ’50s and ’60s, Baker’s life as an organizer is as remarkable as it is unknown. As Ransby chronicles, Baker’s influence on the leaders we’re taught about in school should be recognized and praised—arguably, she changed the direction of the entire country with her philosophy of focusing on local communities, local movements, and local ideas.