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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 >>

Formation of SNCC and the importance of collective action

Baker discusses her role in the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In focusing on the founding principles of SNCC, Baker explains why she believed it was important for SNCC to remain one group, rather than to split into two factions focusing on nonviolence and voter registration. Ultimately, Baker argues that "the strength of the movement lay in being together, not in division." Additionally, Baker briefly discusses the relationship of SNCC to other prominent race organizations of the era.

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

Everybody gives you credit for bringing about two almost profound compromises in terms of S.N.C.C. and S.N.C.C.'s relationship to S.C.L.C… The first one—and I'd like for you to help —took place in that second organizational meeting. No, the first one led to the actual calling of the meeting. You believed, you expressed that in the papers I've seen, that in order to keep the spirits going among these young people, keeping them from being discouraged and resorting to violence, we've got to get them some kind of co-ordination and direction going right here, an organization. So you talked the S.C.L.C. into underwriting this Raleigh Conference at your former school. And that's where you first got together, where you brought all these students together from North and South and some leaders. The young people, from what I could gather, were a little skeptical about Dr. King at that time but they were somewhat high on Rev. Lawson. But they went along with adding non-violence to their platform because of the influence of people like you and Rev. Lawson in addition to the charisma of Dr. King. The second one where you brought about a compromise was in Montego at the Highlander Folk School. This one I think was a little bit more significant in that it almost led to the breaking up of S.N.C.C… You had a group there that wanted to be engaged in militant action, confrontation ahead. You had another group that was being enticed to engage in the poor force and voter registration. So you suggested that they go both ways. And the young people bought that.
ELLA BAKER:
What they really were fighting over was a question of dominance. Those who came out of the nonviolent resistance struggle, like Diane Nash and some who came out of Nashville, were more deeply indoctrinated in the real philosophy and practice of non-violence than many others. Those who were advocating voter registration had been influenced to a large extent by their meetings with such personalities as Bobby Kennedy. Bobby Kennedy had tried to almost buy them in terms of saying concentrate on getting black people registered. Of course he had in mind the next election which would have brought his brother back in. So at the Highlander meeting there were those who contended very heavily for their points of view to the point that they looked like they were splitting. I had been accused by a couple of the grown-ups there of not letting them more or less split because those who were very dedicated to the concept of non-violence did not see that voter-registration would precipitate a conflict, a confrontation with violence, had to, because of the kinds of areas to which they were going. The young people decided—after months and months, weeks and weeks, all night and so forth—recognized that going to southwest Georgia, going down into deep Alabama and Mississippi meant you were going to be faced with violence. So if they compromised, it was largely in terms of the fact that the strength of the movement lay in being together not in division. That was the basis. Nine was not a choice of non-violence versus the other. Mine was in terms of the knowledge of history that I at least had and the recognition that where their strength would ultimately lie would be in involving people in mass, but together, not one fighting for non-violence.
EUGENE WALKER:
During that time what was N.A.A.C.P. and C.O.R.e. s reaction to the S.C.L.C.?
ELLA BAKER:
Outwardly it was friendly, let's put it that way. Maybe subterraneously there were concerns about the extent to which S.C.L.C. might pre-empt their roll in certain places, but you didn't have any outward conflict.
EUGENE WALKER:
The organization pulled an awful lot of people from the N.A.A.C.P….
ELLA BAKER:
No, I don't think so.
EUGENE WALKER:
That was because you didn't accept individual membership.
ELLA BAKER:
That was one of the basics.
EUGENE WALKER:
That was one of the basic rules of S.C.L.C. in all of the time—placate organizations like N.A.A.C.P….
ELLA BAKER:
That was a basic projection from the beginning when those of us who thought in terms of organizing an S.C.L.C. or some force in the South—was to avoid individual memberships which would not place you in competition with the N.A.A.C.P….