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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 >>

Why Baker did not attain an official leadership position within the SCLC

Baker speaks at length about her role within the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the fact that she was never offered an official position of leadership, despite the fact that she was responsible for the bulk of the organization early on. According to Baker, her gender, her age, and the fact that she was not a minister all worked against her in terms of becoming a formidable leader within 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

EUGENE WALKER:
During the time of Rev. Tilly's tenure he was given the title of executive director. After Rev. Tilly departed, you became acting executive director. Number one, how did you feel about his leaving and what did you think of the position of acting executive director?
ELLA BAKER:
What did I think about? How did I feel?
EUGENE WALKER:
How did you feel about it?
ELLA BAKER:
I had no ambition to be (let's call it) executive director. If I had had any, I knew it was not to be. And why do I say that? Two reasons. One, I was a female. The other, I guess, a combination of female and non-minister, plus the kind of personality differences that existed between me and the Rev. Dr. King. I was not a person to be enamoured of anyone. My philosophy was not one of non-violence per se and I knew enough about organization (at least I thought I knew enough about organization) to be critical about some of the lack of proceedures that obtained in S.C.L.C… Within the inner councils, whenever there was discussion, I did not try to force myself upon them recognizing the sensitivities that existed. Now, I did not hesitate to voice my opinion and sometimes it was the voicing of that opinion it was obvious that it was not a very comforting sort of presence that I presented.
EUGENE WALKER:
Was any of these sensitivities regarding a female being in a power position in the organization ever explicitly expressed or was it just a feeling, a presumption that you had in this regard.
ELLA BAKER:
Well, when you say explicitly expressed I think the nearest to it would be the fact that: number one, when brought down, although I had full responsibilities for doing whatever was being done I was never offered a position, an official position, by way of title. And when there was the bringing in of an executive director, I think there was a willingness on the part of the officialdom to permit me to stay on without even title. So I think it may have been some of my friends who raised the question with me and so I maybe raised the question to at least I should keep some record as to where I'd been. There were a number of occassions on which I differed very sharply when a discussion came up and I never was one to just agree on the basis of the position of the other fellow. When I say position, the international and national prominence of the individual had nothing to do, in my opinion, with the opinion that was expressed with the opinion that I did not concur. The prominence of the individual was not a bar to my saying it didn't concur.
EUGENE WALKER:
And you are almost certain that your name never figured prominently in the search for an executive director?
ELLA BAKER:
Well, I know that. After the first meetings and I think it was maybe after the Clarksdale meeting—I'm not too sure, I think it was Clarksdale—and there were some subsequent meetings, I had a special meeting with ministers in Mississippi and nobody was there but me, nobody from the organization. I think I did bring one of the persons from Nashville… I can't recall who came. There was a Methodist bishop—I'm not sure that he was a bishop, but I believe he was (I ought to check the record)—who voiced openly, he was so enthusiastic you know of my "demonstration of capacity to get something out of nothing", Because I had to create materials. I not only created but had to break it down so they could use it. Occasionally I had opportunities to raise questions in council. So some people he recommended openly, immediately, that I become the executive, you see.
EUGENE WALKER:
How was that handled?
ELLA BAKER:
How was it dealt with?
EUGENE WALKER:
That's right.
ELLA BAKER:
[Laughter] I don't recall any verbalization at the time. They probably were to the effect that: well, at this stage, you know, its's not ready or something to that effect. But nobody ever took it seriously, I mean the officialdom didn't take it seriously. In fact, if anything it was an irritant. As far as I was concerned, I knew it couldn't be. So I had no aspirations and I had no illusions as to the possibilities of it being. You see, I was not a young person—that's number one. I was old enough to be the mother of the leadership of the organization. And I was dealing with ministers whose only sense of relationship to women in organization was that of the church. And the roll of women in the southern church—and maybe all of the churches but certainly the southern churches—was that of doing the things that the minister said he wanted to have done. It was not one in which they were credited with having creativity and initiative and capacity to carry out things—to create programs and to carry them out. Certainly that was not my concept of functioning.
EUGENE WALKER:
This is the dilemma that I see in this whole episode and I'd like to hear your reaction to what I'm about to suggest. As I can see it, they had a fantastic respect on the one hand for your ability but an equal amount of fear for your potential of independence on the other hand because they never did make you an official, a bonafide type of official of the organization. Yet, they gave you bonafide top responsibilities—namely, the establishment of this program that they wanted to have such profound impact on the country at the time. This is the kind of ambivalence that is difficult to digest. It's hard to understand that.
ELLA BAKER:
Well, I don't think it's too difficult to digest if you look at it from the perspective that here was a young leadership that came out of a background that had little or no prior experience of working with an effectively trained black (certainly it didn't have to be black or white) an effectively trained and experienced organizational promoter who had had the kind of experience that I had had. And who was not loathe to raise questions. I did not just subscribe to a theory just because it came out of the mouth of the leader. So, it was too difficult; it was much too difficult. I was too old…
EUGENE WALKER:
… to be intimidated by the presence of…
ELLA BAKER:
Well, not only that. From their perspective I was too old to create any interest on a man-female, man-woman, basis. I wasn't a fashionplate; I make no bones about not being a fashionplate. [Laughter]
EUGENE WALKER:
We were talking about their respect for their abilitites on the one hand and a fear of your independence on another. This is the way I perceive it. In addition to that, maybe they didn't regard you as you suggested as a kind of a female animal that fit into their scheme of things.
ELLA BAKER:
Yes.
EUGENE WALKER:
You didn't have that kind of relationship with them.
ELLA BAKER:
No, and I wasn't a showplate. The average attititude toward the southern Baptist ministers at that stage, and maybe still, was as far as their own women were concerned were that they were nice to talk to about such things as how well they cooked, how beautiful they looked, and how well they carried out a program that the minister had delegated them to carry out but not a person with independence and creative ideas of his own, but on whom they had to rely. They could not tolerate, and I can understand that they couldn't, and especially from a person like me because I was not the kind of person that made special effort to be ingratiating. I didn't try to insult but I did not hesitate to be positive about the things with which I agreed or disagreed. I might be quiet but if there was discussion and I was suppose to be able to participate, I participated at the level of my thinking.