Thursday, December 07, 2006


I've recently finished reading Barbara Ransby's Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. She's one of the many women (and men) whose stories get ignored in the deradicalisation of the black freedom movement.*

The first I read about Ella Baker years ago, in Mary King's autobiography. But something about the way Mary King described Ella Baker stayed with me, and I've always wanted to know more about her. I think it was the tone of respect - Mary King said that a sign of this respect was that everyone always called her "Miss Ella Baker" (most of those in the black freedom movement came from the south - where the use of honorifics was decidedly political).

I've always wanted to know more about Miss Ella Baker's life, and it was fascinating to read about how she became the person who earned such a huge amount of respect among the students who were fighting so hard for such simple demands. But for me, the most interesting aspect of the book was how much I agree with the way Ella Baker did politics.

Ella Baker was a grass-roots organiser. What made her politics and action radical, as that she centred her politics around ordinary people.

Barbara Ransby demonstrates really directly what this meant. In 1959 black people in Fayette County got together and tried to vote, this was a big problem to a lot of white people in Fayette county. A lot of the people who tried to vote were sharecroppers, and they got evicted from their land for trying to vote - they lost their house and their income. Instead of leaving Fayette County they built a shanty town on land donated by a black landowner. SNCC and Ella Baker both considered this an important battle, and supported, and wrote about the sharecroppers. The NAACP report focused on the well-to-do grocer, the teacher and theminister, who were not able to vote, rather than the vast majority of poor, semi-illiterate sharecroppers.

In 1960 there were many young black students who were the first people in their family to go to college, some of these students took action against the racist world they lived in. These students became SNCC, and many adopted Ella Baker's ideas of leadership. When they went to a town, they were there to organise, to build trust, to build hope, and eventually work their way out of a job. Despite their relatively priviledged position, they didn't assume that those with power within the black community were more important than those without.

Ella Baker had on-going political disagreements with Martin Luther King Jr., because he had a completely different idea of leadership. He believed in a more traditional view of leadership - that it was his job to lead black people somewhere. Barbara Ransby also implies that Ella Baker also just plain didn't like Martin Luther King Jr. This is where I stop just admiring her, and start identifying her. I hate Big Men of the Left (they are usually men - I suspect it's because most people would react really hostilely to women who acted in the same way). I've known a few men who were seen, or saw themselves in that role, and I can't stand them, usually for a reason - but I usually start hating them before I have the reasons. They believe that they know better, and that they are important in and of themselves, rather than for the work they do.

My idea of leadership is much closer to Ella Baker's - although I don't have her skills. Personality and aesthetics are part of that - whenever I've felt I could make a difference to an important decision people were making I've felt the responsibility like a weight and wanted to run away and hide. But it is mostly about my politics - and my vision of the world.

* I've written a little bit more about that here

No comments:

Post a Comment