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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 >>

Decision-making processes and deferment to Martin Luther King Jr.

Baker discusses the decision-making processes of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. According to Baker, although meetings consisted of open discussion among leaders within the organization, major decisions were left to the deferment of SCLC president, Martin Luther King Jr. Baker argues that this in many ways constituted an effort to remain united around a clear leader.

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

This brings us to another aspect of S.C.L.C. and that is the decision-making aspect. You have mentioned the fact that you did participate in the discussions. Can you recall how decisions were finally made in these kinds of gatherings, discussion groups?
ELLA BAKER:
Well, I think it would vary from time to time.
EUGENE WALKER:
Can you recall any outstanding personalities here—the ones who seemed to dominate the discussions or the ones who seemed to persuade others to their point of view. This is what I'm talking about—the whole decision-making process and the identification of those individuals who seemed to have had the greatest influence.
ELLA BAKER:
I'm not sure that I can specify with any degree of accuracy other than to indicate that persons who had been, let's say, number one, closely related to the Montgomery movement—had a certain, brought with them certain credentials as a result of that. A person like who had on his own initiated a program in Birmingham at the point at which the N.A.A.C.P. activities were banned and persons who had some "standing" in their own communitites. Like the reverend—I've forgotten his name—from New Orleans.
EUGENE WALKER:
Jameson?
ELLA BAKER:
No, Jameson was Baton Rouge. The one who had a very big church in New Orleans. You see, all of these factors that usually influence one minister in terms of his relationship to another minister especially in the Baptist hierarchy—such things as the fact that he was big in Baptist circles, had a big congregation, and that sort of thing—these operated also in terms of how well people were listened to. But in the final analysis there was a deferential consideration on the part of the men themselves both in terms of their not being present, let's call it, at the center of the locale where the organization supposedly had its office and a defferential consideration towards Martin because of his roll internationally and nationally—the image that had been created. So what you had was a open and blank discussion, I think, and an effort to at least voice their opinions. But in the final analysis, the decision for implementing this was left to a large extent to the president. So I don't know whether this touches upon the point you…
EUGENE WALKER:
Certainly. It touches upon the point but I can understand the difficulty involved in specifying certain individuals. The categories you mentioned are certainly useful—mainly that based on the Baptist hierarchy, the minister with the largest congregation, and with standing in his community certainly had a definate influence on the outcome of certain things. But in the final analysis it was left up to Martin as to what would be done. Let me ask you this, can you recall any individuals who refused, other than yourself, who refused to defer in most instances to the wishes of Martin? Were there any coalis ions formed within the body politics, like a decision-making body of the S.C.L.C.?
ELLA BAKER:
No, I think at that stage, let's see, this was the prevading atmosphere: one of, we have something great; we have a great person and we must try to make use of this and not be divisive. I think this was a consideration on the part of the people who were there. Plus the fact, the lack of prior experience on the part of many ministers with dealing with organizations of this type. This was different from a church organization and it was out in "competition" with other national organizations and it was a movement. So neither their time nor general inclination motivated them to give undivided attention to this organization. And they were willing to—as is not uncommon in organization—leave it up to somebody else. Now this however, was one of the reasons that a so-called executive committee was formed. And that committee was supposedly the committee in which great decisions were made and where the differences would be fought out.
EUGENE WALKER:
Do you remember who had the power to appoint the executive committee? Was it chosen in the general assembly or the general conference or was this responsibility left up to the president?
ELLA BAKER:
I think initially, it was left up to the president with, let's call it, the concurrence of the general assembly. The meeting at which the name of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was fought out—that was an interesting meeting. That was held in Montgomery. There was a great deal of discussion as to how to name it and one of the factors that apparently was persuasive in terms of chosing the Southern "Christian" Leadership Conference was that if it were designated as a Christian organization, it would provide some degree of protective mechanism against the charge of being communist.