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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 >>

Early leadership of the SCLC and the role of ministers

Baker focuses more specifically on the individuals responsible for the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957. Baker identifies herself, Stanley Levinson, and Bayard Rustin as the three individuals who did the major legwork in conceptualizing the SCLC and explains why Martin Luther King Jr. was seen as an appropriate spokesperson. Additionally, Baker explains the centrality of religion to the SCLC and offers her thoughts on why ministers took such a prominent role of leadership.

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

EUGENE WALKER:
At this point you may be able to help me clear up another question too. There's a question as to where the initial call for this conference came from. Reading a book like Louis, Miller, they suggest that the call came from C. K. Steele. Well, I went down and interviewed Rev. Steele and he assured me that the call didn't come from him. He responded to the call. He said some Jewish-talking, or some funny talking man called him—he's always thought it was Bayard Rustin —and asked him if he would go along with the conference in late '56, late December, '56. And he said, yeah, it was just his kind of a thing. He had just finished his Tallahassee thing and they were at the city council. So, I'm trying to pin down, if there's any way possible.
ELLA BAKER:
I don't know whether you can pin it down because I think Bayard may verify the fact that there were three of us who talked into the wee hours of the morning in terms of, how do you develop a course that can enlarge upon the gains or the impact of the Montgomery bus boycott.
EUGENE WALKER:
Did the three represent you, Bayard and Levinson?
ELLA BAKER:
Yes, Bayard and Levinson; largely at Stanley's house. He was the man with some money, and Bayard and I would go over there. He's not living where he use to. Why me? Because I knew the South—comparatively, in terms of their knowledge of it. They had not had as wide knowledge as I had. Plus the fact that I had been associated with the N.A.A.C.P… So, we talked into the wee hours and the concep of trying to develop out of the Montgomery bus boycott leadership a force. And when they approached no doubt Martin and whoever else, their response was largely in terms of ministers. That's why you get the ministerial thing. You couldn't think in terms of a leadership around the bus boycott without also thinking of C. K. Steele's efforts and Jameson's efforts.
EUGENE WALKER:
McCullough of South Carolina.
ELLA BAKER:
Well, McCullough came a little bit after that. Then you go into the whole question, which was the pattern in the South, who were the leaders? The ministers—which may or may not be justifiable, but that's how it started. Then, let's say that the call came from Martin.
EUGENE WALKER:
Yes, well that's the way it was basically reported.
ELLA BAKER:
Yes. Historically he gets credit for it, but the truth let it be known, no one individual really conceive of an idea like that without somewhere, somehow some other input.
EUGENE WALKER:
Right. Now I can see a great deal of precipitating happenings leading to the founding of S.C.L.C… The next question in my mind is, after this was realized there was a need for an instrument to try and spread this movement that was in Montgomery with the hope of bringing about greater social change, what was the notion of the kind of organization you would have? I know you said you had a great deal of ministers, but would it be one with just a president and a lot of lieutenants, a president and an executive secretary with a great deal of power, or was it a democratic organization in conception, or a strong dictatorial organization? What was the thinking about the nature of the organization at this time?
ELLA BAKER:
Well, the thinking about the nature of the organization would vary with the people who were doing the thinking. Those of us who preferred an organization that was democratic and where the decision making was left with the people would think in one vein and the organizing of active, let's call it, chapters or units of people. But when you reckon with the fact that a majority of the people who were called together were ministers and the decision as to who was called together emanated no doubt both from the background out of which (let's call it) Martin came and maybe lack of understanding (I'm willing to say) of the virtue of utilizing the mass surge that had developed there in Montgomery. Just look at Montgomery. What has happened since Montgomery?
EUGENE WALKER:
But there's another problem here….
ELLA BAKER:
So I think the nature of the organization became to a large extent a ministerial thing. Out of the one hundred plus (I forgot how many) that were present at the initial meeting where the formal organizing of the organization took place, I think Whitney Young and a guy from Mississippi… who I worked with for a number of years, I can't think of his name…
EUGENE WALKER:
Dr. Henry?
ELLA BAKER:
No, no, no… Anthon Moore in Cleaveland, Mississippi, were among the maybe two or three non-ministers present. I was the only woman. I think maybe there was another person who came and sat in
EUGENE WALKER:
Do you think the reason for that was because most of the ministers at that time had the power to…
ELLA BAKER:
Well, not only…
EUGENE WALKER:
… the power to bring people together?
ELLA BAKER:
No, not only the power. When you haven't been accustomed to mass action, and they weren't… You see basically your ministers are not people who go in for decisions on the part of people. I don't know whether you realize it or not. And they had been looked upon as saviors. So what happened is, here they are faced with a suggestion that goes against the grain and with which they are not prepared to deal. So they come together.