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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Ella Baker, September 4, 1974. Interview G-0007. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Foundation for the SCLC

Baker discusses the foundation for her work in the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957. She worked for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from the late 1930s into the early 1950s, during which time she became increasingly cognizant of racial discrimination and segregation in the South. Additionally, Baker describes events of the mid-1950s, particularly the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1954, as especially influential in establishing the foundation of an organization such as the SCLC.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Ella Baker, September 4, 1974. Interview G-0007. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

My first question to you, as I was saying earlier, is, can you point out to me other factors aside from the Montgomery movement and the 1954 Supreme Court decision which may have contributed to the founding of SCLC when it was founded in '57?
ELLA BAKER:
Well, I think what you have is a question of continuity of struggle. You said that people had referred to me largely in terms of maybe being a factor. That I think sprang from the fact that several years before that, in the forties, late thirties and in the forties in particular, I was working with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and a primary function of mine was to go into the areas—maybe some of the areas that had not been visited in a long while. For instance, I used to leave New York sometime in February and go into Florida. I'd start at St. Pete[rsburg] and Tampa and that was because the Association didn't have an active branch in Miami at the time. So we'd work around Tampa and up the east or the west coast, Palm Beach, West Palm Beach and on and on and up, Pampano and small places and hit Jacksonville; from Jacksonville to Tallahassee; from Tallahassee to Pensacola; Pensacola into Mobile; Mobile through Alabama; from Alabama into Georgia; Georgia up till you came into Virginia. So that had been my itinerary for several years. Then in the process it was not to be unthought of that I had touched a number of people who had not been visited for a long time by Association personnel. That may account for whatever historical impact I may have had. In addition to that, the '54 decision was frequently interpreted by people as being the end of the struggle because the N.A.A.C.P. struggle had been one of legal action to a large extent. The 1954 decision culminated an effort on the part of the lawyers of the Association to raise the question of the constitutionality of racial segregation. This was the case on which that got verbalization. So that becomes an historical monument and to some people it almost was interpreted as being the end of the struggle. But as we have seen from the history of racial segregation and discrimination, we've had court action that has been nullified from time immemorial. You must go back to the Reconstruction period and I'm not going into that, but you go back there. Much of what was supposedly gained in the forties and fifties legally, had been supposedly secured to us right after the Reconstruction period. And you know those laws were nullified. So, S.C.L.C.; why? It was…. [interruption]
EUGENE WALKER:
You were about to speak to the "why" of S.C.L.C..
ELLA BAKER:
I think the basic "why" of S.C.L.C. has to do with what has taken place in the '54 decision and the unthought of Montgomery bus boycott. But before you can evaluate the bus boycott, you have to understand how it came about. And it didn't come out of a vacuum. There were two people in Montgomery who had functioned with the N.A.A.C.P. over the years and they were Mrs. Rosa Parks and E.D.Nixon. Where did E. D. Nixon get his fire? He got his fire and his sense of social action from being a member of the Brotherhood of Sleepingcar Porters and the struggle that it had waged through the years. So when the Montgomery bus boycott ended successfully here you had a social phenomenon that had not taken place in the history of those of us who were around at that time, where hundreds of people and even thousands of people, ordinary people, had taken a position that put them in a very uncomfortable—at least made life less comfortable for them—when they decided to walk rather than to ride the buses. And this was a mass action and a mass action that anybody who looked at the social scene would have to appreciate and wonder. Those of us who believed that mass and only through mass action are we going to eliminate certain things, would have to think in terms of how does this get carried on. So, whatever the reasons, or however the historical accidents of history or whatever else that precipitated Martin as the president—that's quite a story I'm not going into because you didn't come here for that—but whatever those factors were, he was there as the spokesman for the boycott. And out of the boycott he became a worldwide known individual articulating the strivings and the hopes and so forth of the people who were involved in the boycott.