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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 >>

Drafted to organize, but not "a person of authority"

Baker describes her initial work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, arguing that she was "drafted" by Stanley Levinson and Bayard Rustin to go to Atlanta, Georgia, in an organizational capacity. Although her role was highly visible, Baker argues that she was not seen as "a person of authority," primarily because she was a woman. In this regard, her comments become revealing of some of the challenges women had in attaining positions of leadership within the civil rights movement.

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:
Do you have any knowledge at all about who may have recommended you for that position?
ELLA BAKER:
Well, I think I know who recommended me—I don't think it was a recommendation. At that point, I was drafted. I was drafted without my own consent.
EUGENE WALKER:
Explain that to me please.
ELLA BAKER:
I think I had indicated to you some time earlier that there had been a series of conversations and dialogues with and between myself and Stanley Levinson and Bayard Ruskin. That was even prior to the, let's call it, the formation of the S.C.L.C… And at the initial meeting at which the S.C.L.C. was organized, in '57 I believe it is, of course I was down in Atlanta with Bayard and preparing materials for that meeting.
EUGENE WALKER:
You might be interested to know that I have a number of those work papers that were prepared. I don't know who prepared them but I do know that work papers were prepared at the first meeting in January and the one in February in New Orleans.
ELLA BAKER:
Well, the work papers in the first meeting in January were prepared, the content, largely by Bayard and the format I did because I like to set things out in a form that you can see esily, you see. So I was sent there by this method. The three of us were to meet and Bayard and Stanley had gone out to the airport to talk with Martin as he passed through New York going where, I don't know. They came back and told me that I had been drafted to go to Atlanta to set up the program for the Crusade for Citizenship for these twenty-odd meetings. Prior to that it had been assumed that Bayard would go down, but he was not available, let's say. I was very provoked because I had never in my life.
EUGENE WALKER:
… given your consent not as a contributor.
ELLA BAKER:
No, I had not planned to go. To be drafted in the sens of having it be said that I would go when I hadn't been consulted… my ego isn't very pronounced. But I suppose in that aspect of it, my ego is easily touched; not to ask me what to do but to designate me to do something without even consulting me, but I went.
EUGENE WALKER:
Well, let me ask you this. This is the first major civil rights undertaking in the history of this country whereby a woman has been granted a seemingly, ostensibly significant policy-making kind of position. Now, were you taken by that? Was that gratifying to you?
ELLA BAKER:
[Laughter] Oh no, no, no, no. Because I knew I didn't have any significant role in the minds of those who constituted the organization. I'm sure that basically the assumption is, or was, and perhaps the assumption still prevails in the minds of those who remember my being there, that I was just there to carry out the orders of Dr. King and somebody else, but incidental since there was no designation of authority. I wasn't a person of authority.
EUGENE WALKER:
So, when you first moved into S.C.L.C., your actual work designation was never really specified. You were just called here to assist them in a project that they didn't know too much about—namely, the co-ordination of voters project throughout the South, a spontaneous one at that? Is that correct?
ELLA BAKER:
Yes. Getting together the meetings and preparing material for it. In fact, they spelled out nothing because there was nobody to spell cut anything.
EUGENE WALKER:
They were searching for projects?
ELLA BAKER:
Well, they had in mind… the idea was conceived of as having dramatic, let's call it far-reaching, impact. Of having twenty meetings, or twenty-two meetings, simultaneously on February the twelfth—which I think is the official date of Douglass' birthday, Frederick Douglass' birthday.
EUGENE WALKER:
And some white president, what's his name—Lincoln.
ELLA BAKER:
Lincoln, no. Yes, his is near that period. I think there's a difference of a day in the dates of the two births. But as I remember it, in my thinking, my obeisance was paid to the fact that it was near Mr. Douglas' birthday.
EUGENE WALKER:
I have read where others gave credit to the fact that it was the white president's.
ELLA BAKER:
[Laughter] Well, let it be. And my coming, as I said, was to see that this be done. Now how it was to be done, who was to do this, that or the other—there was nothing spelled out. I guess I must believe that both Stanley and Bayard knew that I knew something about organization—I had functioned both as a field person and as a national office staff member of the N.A.A.C.P… I had had other kinds of, call it, professional positions. So, they figured that with the input that would come down, you see, from them and others we'd have something going.
EUGENE WALKER:
Right, right, I can understand that.
ELLA BAKER:
So, certainly by no stretch of the imagination can it be considered a conscious effort on the part of the officialdom of S.C.L.C. to provide input from a female, as such. If anything, it would be to the contrary.