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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 >>

Youthful and direct action of SNCC and its expectations of leadership

Baker discusses why the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was seen as "irritating, threatening" to other organizations, such as the SCLC or the NAACP. According to Baker, SNCC's emphasis on young people and direct action was somewhat unsettling to the more established organizations, who believed they could channel the activities of younger people in the movement. Baker similarly argues that the youth-oriented nature of SNCC resulted in their preference for the leadership of someone like Reverend James Lawson over Martin Luther King Jr. The passage concludes with Baker's thoughts on King's perception of his own leadership within the 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

So I'm asking you if you can recall any instances whereby S.N.C.C. was actually irritating, threatening (which is I think too strong a word) S.C.L.C. or the N.A.A.C.P.?
ELLA BAKER:
I think the basic reason for the reactions of N.A.A.C.P. and S.C.L.C. to S.N.C.C. is the fact that they elected to be independent and they exercised the independence that only young people or unattached people, those who are not caught in a framework of thought, can exercise. They were open to ideas that would not have been certainly cherished, or in some instances certainly, tolerated by either the N.A.A.C.P. or S.C.L.C… As a chief example, the moving into Mississippi. When they decided, they called it "Move On Mississippi" and they called it "MOM". I think a delegation went to talk to Thurgood Marshall, who was then the chief counsel of the N.A.A.C.P. regarding this and to seek legal help. And Thurgood was not responsive. In the first place because the young people had expressed the opinion and the determination that they were going to accept help from wherever they could get it. Which meant that people like Crocket in Troy and other members of what is called the National Lawyers [unclear] —many white lawyers—which is leftist oriented, would be objectionable to the N.A.A.C.P. because they didn't want to introduce this conflict of ideologies, of pro-communist ideology, and leave themselves open to the charge on the part of the authorities that the communists were taking over. So the young people had taken the position [unclear] (I'm not sure of the sequence of whether this memo… I'm not sure when this memo but it had to be after when Wyatt came in) that they accept help wherever they could get it. One aspect of the help, for instance, that was being sought in Mississippi was the utilization of untried or unpopular methods of dealing legally with the question that arose out of the conflict of struggle in Mississippi. Persons like those who were not within the old framework, framework, were much more open to trying these new things. (We can later deal with some of the specifics; I can refresh myself sometime and somewhere and find some docuementation for you.) But this I think was the basis. Behind that I think, to be very honest, was the feeling that here was this group of upstarts that nobody could control and that they ought to be part of either my organization or your organization. I think we have dealt somewhat in our conversation with the fact that at the initial meeting there was this very strong effort on the part of representations from at least a couple of organizations to have the young people as part of them. Of course, it was almost a foregone conclusion on the part of S.C.L.C. that because the meeting…
EUGENE WALKER:
… had been called by you
ELLA BAKER:
… had been called by me…
EUGENE WALKER:
… you would deliver.
ELLA BAKER:
[Laughter] Well, I guess they had. I hadn't thought of it in that way, but there was a foregone conclusion that) since S.C.L.C. sponsored the meeting, that they would be a part. I remember in Raleigh at the time Wyatt was particularly interested in this because he was coming in as executive director and he wanted a strong arm. The unfortunate part was that there was an assumption on the part of the ministers, part of the S.C.L.C. personell who was there, that they could leterally dictate (I use the term advisedly) to representatives from their area and control their voting. It was at that point I walked out of the meeting. There was this "meeting" of the chief executives—these were adults, not a young person was present—at which they were voicing such opinions as, "I can speak to so-and-so," and "I can talk to Dorton from Virginia," and "I can control one from Montgomery," Bernard Lee.
EUGENE WALKER:
Yes, we're talking about how to use them.
ELLA BAKER:
Yes, and this was completely intolerable to me.
EUGENE WALKER:
But they eventually experienced a rude awakening in trying to deal with these young people. The young people just weren't listening to them.
ELLA BAKER:
Well, that was their first experience recognizing that the young people were going to make their own decisions. At that time, they found that they just weren't able to control the voting.
EUGENE WALKER:
At this meeting in Raleigh, Dr. King and Rev. Lawson were two people who gave keynote addresses. They both were really outstanding. From reading about accounts of that meeting one gets the impressions that the students were much more impressed with the speech by Rev. Lawson than they were with the speech by Dr. King.
ELLA BAKER:
They had to be.
EUGENE WALKER:
Was Lawson that more knowledgeable and persuasive in his presentations than Dr. King? How do you account for that fact that he made a much more profound impression on the youth than Dr. King?
ELLA BAKER:
I think Dr. King in a measure (from there and even in some other instances from my way of thinking) was a victim of his own background; namely, that of being a preacher who had relied to a large extent on the impact of eloquence. Lawson had not only the eloquence enough to be heard but he had the persuasiveness of argument. He also had the credentials, as far as the young were concerned, of having been a part of that student effort in Nashville. The Nashville group at their initial meeting in Raleigh, was regarded as the group because they came with a great deal of indoctrination. They had indoctrination but they also had provided action and they had suffered. So they had their credentials there and these credentials were recognized by the young. As far as Dr. King was concerned, (I don't remember his speech) his speech could not possibly have had the same relevance that Lawson's did because he had not been engaged in what the students had been doing with the same degree of membership (let's call it). He was still outside.
EUGENE WALKER:
This is a little derivative but it's not too far out of line with what we're talking about. This brings to mind a man by the name of Vincent Hardying.
ELLA BAKER:
Yes, I love Vincent.
EUGENE WALKER:
The reason that I'm bringing up his name right now is that I've been informed somewhere in my interviewing that Dr. King somewhat feared, or was a little bit reluctant to deal with, in a very open and comprehensive way personalities such as Vincent Harding and Rev. James Lawson. Did you get an impression like that? Did you ever get the impression that King regarded these men as somewhat of a threat to his position with their knowledge and power of persuasiveness?
ELLA BAKER:
I could say that I got the impression, specifically, that he was loathe to do this. I think I could make a generalization that Martin suffered from selfprotectiveness that frequently goes with one who has been accorded high place in the public image. He was not sufficiently secure, I think, to feel that he could exist and they could exist without feeling that they were competetive or threats. He may not have been conscious of that, I don't know . This is not uncommon. Especially this is not uncommon out of the background from which he came. He had to continue to emphasize that he had not had the kind of organizational discipline that either Lawson had had or Vincent. I think Vincent was part of the Friends, Quakers. That's dialogue, where people talk things out a lot where they have a long series of discussions. Martin had not had these things.
EUGENE WALKER:
His Ph.D. in philosophy and ethics couldn't possibly prepare him for this?
ELLA BAKER:
No. I don't care how much reading you do, if you haven't had the interchange of dialogue and confrontation with others you can be frightened by someone who comes and is in a position to confront you.
EUGENE WALKER:
Especially if they confront you with an air of security and independence.
ELLA BAKER:
Yes, and if they come with their own credentials. There was an insecurity, I think. I don't know whether he was ever aware of it. It was a natural insecurity coming out of that Baptist tradition. Baptist ministers have never been strong on dialogue; it was dictum.