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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 >>

The SCLC and spontaneous collective action

Baker describes the early character of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) as spontaneous. Building upon the momentum of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Baker argues that the SCLC sought to capitalize on a collective sense of energy and activity in order to effect change. Overall, she argues that the SCLC was not built upon a decisive ideology, although it was deeply wed to philosophies of Christianity and Ghandian nonviolence.

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

Beyond the initial idea of the organization, what kind of character do you see the organization as having in its earlier stage? Can you lend any kind of character to it, other than the fact that it was composed of ministers who really didn't know anything about organization? What kind of a character did it have, or is that too broad or ambiva lent a question?
ELLA BAKER:
Well, I don't know whether it's ambivalent but I think in the nature of the time, the character of the organization can best be defined as something to meet the need of or capitalizing upon—this was their design—the mass impact that the Montgomery boycott had. Here you have a situation historically unthought of and unpredicted, where thousands of individuals, just black ordinary people, subjected themselves to inconveniences that were certainly beyond the thinking of most folk. Where they would walk: old women and maids who ran the risk of losing their little income would walk, if they got there, rather than ride the buses. Now this meant that you had a momentum that had not been seen even in the work of the N.A.A.C.P… And it was something that suggested a higher potential for wide-spread action through the South. So I think this has to be considered in any evaluation of S.C.L.C… (I may have lost my point.)
EUGENE WALKER:
We were talking about the character of it. You're describing the spontaneity of it and the exceptional capacity that the people had to sacrifice.
ELLA BAKER:
Yes, for what they considered to be a point of liberation. This was supposedly designed to escalate that throughout the South. If you recall the first organization meeting in Atlanta was tied up with the concept of transportation, mass action on transportation, which of course was rather limited but this was suggestive to it. I must say, it did not come from the group. It came from somewhere else. The whole concept was we needed in the South a mass based organization that might further the involvement of masses of people similar to what had taken place in Montgomery. It didn't have to be a bus boycott, but whatever. I think this is it.
EUGENE WALKER:
Yes, you're definately speaking to what I was talking about. You have to go to the inception and the motivation behind it being founded to really get at it. If we were to look at the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, you know that their movement was routed very deeply in ideological kinds of considerations. such an ideology in this movement but it's so ellusive that I'm going to have to conclude I believe that there was no basic ideology involved in the founding of S.C.L.C… Not really the N.A.A.C.P.—unless you're going to call the Declaration of Indepence and the Constitution of the United States an ideology because they don't really put out pamphlets, write conceptual frameworks, which is found in ideology dealing with the system per se. They come up with tactis and programs to deal with problems dealing with race relations.
ELLA BAKER:
Yes.
EUGENE WALKER:
And I'm trying to really examine it. I thought I'd clear my mind, as you can see, but these are the kinds of things that I am trying to look at.
ELLA BAKER:
No, I don't think there was an ideology that certainly was comparable to the Marxist-Leninist concept of a changed society. The nearest to an ideology would be, let's call it, the Christian philosophy and that tied in with the philosophy of Ghandian non-violence, non-violent mass action. That was the nearest to it. But this is itself becomes an ellusive sort of a thing when, let's call it, the impact of the need to grow enters in and maybe the influence from individual leadership as to what shall we do next. And the "what shall we do next" frequently comes from sources other than the organization—like the identification with the anti-war movement. This did not develop out of the organization. It's out of discussion within the organization. It no doubt came as a suggestion to the president and the invitation to the president to come and speak at anti-war rallies. And I know something about somebody saying, "There is a time now for Martin to speak on anti-war. Do you think that this is the time for it?" And somebody would say, "Yes, it is." Somebody would talk to him; somebody that he felt duty-bound, let's call it, to listen to.
EUGENE WALKER:
Okay. So the character then—and I'm just trying to theorize here and just give off kinds of responses and I want your reaction to them. The character here then, as I said, would be more and more of an action kind of a movement than one which would lend itself to a long-term plan or an ideology based on bringing about permanent social changes in the system, as such. And this action oriented movement lent itself more spontaneity than it did to the development of a structure which would require a kind of rigid format down through the years. So, this I think more than anything else would reflect the ultimate character that was inherent in what S.C.L.C. was doing. Or would you differ with that?
ELLA BAKER:
No, I wouldn't differ. I think you're quite correct there because the personnell who provided the leadership for S.C.L.C. had never come to grips with a philosophical concept other than the general concept of nonviolent mass action. I don't think there was much—I'll be gratious and say—either time or other bases for in-depth thinking about how far non-violent mass action can go and to what extent can you really involve people. You se, you may talk about it but when you respond—as the organization did—to situations—their major efforts were in response to situations—and when you exhaust yourself in situations like in Florida or situations in Albany…
EUGENE WALKER:
Like St. Aug?
ELLA BAKER:
St. Aug. and Albany—what do you have? And you see all of this is being done within the time period of two or three years. Let's call it the overthrow of the Czar. It was not a two year thing. And maybe the general format, not only the format but the pattern of communication and training and action, the development of an anti-czarist movement was much more stimulated, I suppose, by the rather harsh physical conditions. And here you have black people living in "conditions" that were great affluence, the president becoming an international figure. These harsh conditions were not…
EUGENE WALKER:
… were never really touched.
ELLA BAKER:
Never really, yes.