She's never been to jail, a curious credit for a civil rights personage. Yet Ella Jo Baker has always been there, away from the jail cells, the picket lines and television cameras, spending 50 years shaping organizations and people.
Her name inspires awe from movement insiders. She is legendary, yet little known. Her historical place is harnessed by an unbroken half-century of pioneering work. In the 1930s she organized food cooperatives in Harlem, joining the work of that era's civil rights architects, such as Walter White, A. Philip Randolph and Roy Wilins.
Later, in the 1950s, she provided some of the direction, action, skills and philosophy for the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott. And she helped create two significant civil rights groups, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Working in an almost exclusively male world, Baker advised both the nonviolent advocate of social change, Martin L. King Jr., and the man who gave America the theory of black power, Stokely Carmichael Jr.
"I don't know how many people know her name but thousands know her work," says Eleanor Homes Norton, the chair of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. "She has been at the cutting edge of initiating actions that led to great changes in this country. And she never stayed to gather the glory." Norton, along with Washington's Mayor-elect Marton Barry, and other civil rights activists who are now part of the establishment, gave Ella Baker a 75th birthday party last night at Howard University Law School.
They sang "Oh, Freedom" as well "Happy Birthday" for Ella Baker last night. Her choir was the nostalgic voices she had toned from emotional rhetoric to protest in the '60s.
Appropriately, right before the tribute, Baker, who barely comes up to Marion Barry's waist, took the mayor-elect aside and talked of politicians and strategy, Barry acknowledged, "As students we thought most adults weren't into anything. But she was more than an adviser, she was a steadfast symbol."
Most of the 75 people gathered had a story about Ella Baker-attorney Wiley Branton, now dean of Howard's law school; John Wilson, a member of the D.C. City Council; Timothy Jenkins, a management consultant, and John Lewis and Mary King, both of ACTION. Bernard Lee, now with the Environmental Protection Agency, spoke of a Sunday in 1960. "We were marching from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to the Montgomery State Capitol and Montgomery, in all its power, was ready to kill us. Miss Baker joined us that day. She was there with her hat and carrying her purse. We took the very first step off the sidewalk and more than 5,000 while people gave a rebel yell and I looked at Miss Baker and her expression hadn't changed. It was a fixed look of quiet determination.
"I remember that Martin Luther King once said, "If Ella Had been born a man, God only knows what she would have been able to do.'"
During an interview last week in her Harlem apartment, the slightness of her body suggested a frailty, the combination of blue housedress, beige-rubber-sole T-straps and black pill-box hat an eccentricity. Yet it was the sharpness of her resounding speech that gave a hint of the strength her friends admire. For she developmed her reputation partly because of her oratorical skills.
Once in Greensboro, N.C., Baker spoke of violence and how lynching was just one cause of a political battle. A 16-year-old boy named Randolph Blackwell was listening."I was frankly mesmerized. She spoke of professional preparation, the depths of injustice and the nature of individual commitment," says Blackwell, now the minority business administrator at Commerce Department. The day after hearing Baker speak, Blackwell organized the first youth branch of th NAACP in North Carolina.
In her role as a strategist and activist, Ella Baker has symbolized the barrier-breaking of the 20th-century woman. In 1927, the year she finised Shaw University, proper, middle-class women were only expected to remove their white gloves for teaching. She rejected that pattern outright. She went into the career without textbooks-organizing.
Before Wordl War II, Baker went into the most alien parts of her native South to organized for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a dangerous venture even as late as the 1960s.
But essentially she ended up teching. "What she taught was that struggle was a continuing activity, that everyone had a purpose," says Ivanhoe Donaldson, now a strategist fro Marion Barry. "She would make you think through what you were about to do, let you decide your tactics, then educated you to history. She would never say anything was impossible but would gird you for disappointment."
After enduring an all-night session of the young radicals in early 1960s, holding a white handerchief to her mouth to control the asthmatic cough that still wracks her body, she used to tell her listeners, "Don't settle for a hamburger." That was one of her visions.
The Sunshine Band of the local Baptish church in Littleton, N.C., was the first organization Ella Baker joined. This is announced proudly, a little testily.
'A Part of Living'
"So you see," says, the bronze columns of age on her face immobile, anticipating some misunderstanding, "all these other organizations were just a natural part of living, doing. My family identified with people, not in the great. 'I am' sense but in the 'we' sense."
Ell Baker was the second of three children, born into a prosperous, outgoing family in Norfolk, Va. Her mother taught school and her father was a waiter on the steamboat from Norfolk to Washington. "When I was about 6, we moved to Littleton, N.C., where my maternal grandfather was a minister. It was there that I met an elderly man who wasn't articulate but had taught himself to read. He wanted to express himself, I learned to listen and I learned that everyone has some idea of what they want to do with their life."
When Baker, a proper young lady with the proper degree, and she says, "all my energy intact for the next direction," arrived in Harlem in the late '20s, the street corner was a very proper place to assimilate ideas.
"The streets then were the forums. We did have the meetings in the library and the Y. where people in the struggle provided insight, like James Weldon Johnson and Countee Cullen," says Baker. "But the ideas really came from your group, the taxi drivers, the people who had to work where they were allowed, people with a sense of day-to-day survival, I learned from everybody."
While the ideas were within easy reach, the jobs were not. Baker, who dreamt of being a doctor, clipped the threads off dresses in a factory, and waited on tables. To counteract that drudgery, and to keep up with political movements she started working with the Young Negroes Coorperative League.
Through the league and the Works Progress Administration, Baker organized economic cooperatives and buying clubs in Harlem. One of her delivery boys was Robert Moses, later a school teacher who became a principal force in the southern movement of the 1960s.
In 1940 Baker became field secretary of the NACCP, then the primary proponent of social change. "I would spend four to five months of the year in the South. Once you identified the sympathetic people, you would find out the main concerns, jobs or schools. Then you didn't say 'looks here, this is what to do,' but you listened. Every one of those people knew what they needed," says Baker.
But what were the dangers for this genteel but always outspoken woman, who left her stylish New York City clothes home for the cotton, flowered sheaths of the dust roads of Alabama?
"I always thought it was no more dangerous for me than for the people who were living there. But I didn't come into town with any fanfare, I slept where the people slept. I never projected myself as the leader of any thing," says Baker.
By the time of the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing school desegregation, Baker had left the group's leadership rank,s yet she organized parents to fight de facto segregation in New York schools and provided a compassionate concern for victims of the Communist witchhunts of the 1950s. "She dealt with me as a human being," remembers Anne Braden, a journalist who was charged with sedition in 1954 and sought Baker's help.
Going to Montgomery in 1955, Baker advised the young ministers who came to national attention and became the first executive director of their group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
When Rev. King wanted to move his base from Montgomery to Atlanta, some of Atlanta's older black leadership objected. "It was a real divisive issue," remembers M. Carl Holman. "Ella attended on of those meetings and she spoke of King's importance and said what was going to happen would be bigger than Montgomery or Atlanta."
For most of the activists of the 1960s Baker was a model of how to work for the same goal in several arenas at once. "Each organization has had its unique set of contributions," she says, reluctant to say which one helped her development most or contributed more to social change.
She stops, her hands still folded on her lap, but her eyes always searching for an answer on her listener's face. "Well, all this is hard to say. I am still here, will be here tomorrow, if the asthma allows. I really didn't have a career but my forte, if we can call it that, was believing that whatever you did, you did because it was important to try." CAPTION: Picture, Ella Jo Baker, by S. Karin Epstein for The Washington Post