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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Ella Baker, April 19, 1977. Interview G-0008. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Helping found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference

In 1958, Baker headed south, and she quickly became active with the protests occurring in Montgomery. She was the only woman present at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and she recalls the personalities of the men involved in the organization and the battles she had to fight to get the administrative side of the organization functioning smoothly.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Ella Baker, April 19, 1977. Interview G-0008. 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

SUE THRASHER:
I want to get you south. We're at '57, and you went south in '59?
ELLA BAKER:
Fifty-eight. After I'd done all the other things, I was functioning here in New York. And during the period when I was President of the New York branch of the NAACP and, I guess, even before that, there were certain interrelationships with groups like the American Jewish Congress local people on issues. I remember a meeting at which I was on the same platform with Mrs. Roosevelt on the McCarren-Walker Immigration Act. And it had been more or less pulled together by Stanley Levitt when he was Chairman of the Uptown AJC, I believe. And that's where he and I met. And then we began to have a great deal of interchange of talking. And I don't know how I got involved, but after the Montgomery bus boycott success it became very obvious that there was need to move. You had the big boycott and then nothing. And so I perhaps had had the greater experience in terms of the southern scene. The other two hadn't been involved. So we began to talk in terms of something creating in the South a force that had its leadership base in the top leadership base in the South. And that was why SCLC was pushed. The ministers, as you know, where nothing was happening after the boycott itself and after the successful court action that ended the boycott. Of course, Martin, people were flocking to… [interruption]
SUE THRASHER:
We were talking about the beginnings of SCLC and how there hadn't been activity in the South following the settlement of the case legally.
ELLA BAKER:
In fact, there had been none in Montgomery itself. And yet these ministers were there. And so out of whatever conversations, dialogues, and so forth that were taking place, the idea was projected that it would be good to have an organizational base in the South comparable, to some extent, to the NAACP. Because the NAACP was not activist in that direction. And these people who had come out of the bus boycott or its leadership ought to be involved in something worth more than just relying on the past. And so out of it, I think I might have projected the idea that it would be good to have this leadership base. There had been cooperative or interrelated action between the South. Martin was always on things like the 1957 prayer pilgrimage, which was initiated from up here. And whatever else, he was part of it. But you still didn't have a viable base for political social action in the South out of the black community.
SUE THRASHER:
So you, Rustin, and Levinson had all worked with King, then, in '57?
ELLA BAKER:
No, I had never worked with him. Levinson and I had formed a kind of relationship as a result of the McCarren-Walker Immigration Act. He was with the AJC over there on Broadway somewhere. I'm over here in the heart of Harlem. And out of that had come a certain amount of good relations. Of course, Bayard has the faculty of being in a number of places. And there had been the Prayer Pilgrimage of '57 in Washington and some other gatherings in which the NAACP, the ministers…. Martin was involved as representative of, I suppose, the remnants of the Montgomery boycott. And others had met when you had the Prayer Pilgrimage in Washington in '57, I think. And there were other projections that were being made in terms of another big push, you know, the big pushes that they've had in Washington. And so it was suggested that really you ought to have something in the South, because that could mean a mass base. It could provide a mass base for action. Hopefully, you would expect it to; of course, you couldn't be sure. And the decision was to not have a membership, to avoid competition with the NAACP. And out of it came the SCLC. The ministers who had rallied around the bus boycott idea wanted something, but nothing was happening. And so they had a meeting in February or January of 1957, at which SCLC was "formally organized," which was simply a matter of saying that Martin was Chairman, and somebody else so-and-so.
SUE THRASHER:
Was that meeting in Ebeneezer?
ELLA BAKER:
That was in Atlanta; I guess it was Ebeneezer.
SUE THRASHER:
Were you at that meeting?
ELLA BAKER:
Oh, yes, I was there. Somehow that doesn't seem to be at a church, though. I guess it was at a church.
SUE THRASHER:
Were you the only woman at that meeting?
ELLA BAKER:
I don't know. I didn't look around to see. I wasn't even in it as such. Somebody's got to run the mimeographing machine. [Laughter]
SUE THRASHER:
it organized.
ELLA BAKER:
And to draft some of the stuff.
CASEY HAYDEN:
That was a South-wide meeting. So then the key ministers .
ELLA BAKER:
Yes.
CASEY HAYDEN:
About how many people were there?
ELLA BAKER:
Fifty or sixty.
CASEY HAYDEN:
So it wasn't a mass meeting.
SUE THRASHER:
Organizational meeting.
CASEY HAYDEN:
Had a mailing gone out about it?
ELLA BAKER:
Yes. Martin was the one to do the mailing. That's as much as you got. There were three non-ministers present, I think. One was Whitney Young, and the other was Dr. C. O. Simpkins of Shreveport, Louisiana. And Amsey Moore from Mississippi, as I remember. I had met Amsey in connection with…. We had provided from up here certain things for meeting some of his crisis situations. Dr. Simpkins was a dentist who was heading up a local group. But then, you see, why '58? What happened was that Martin was the leader, and when nothing had taken place between the time they were officially organized, ministers were getting restless.
SUE THRASHER:
No newsletter, nothing.
ELLA BAKER:
No, of course no. What do you mean, newsletter? I don't guess there was anyhow. [Laughter] Nothing was happening. And so then the idea that somebody had to go down and set up an office. And they had gotten the idea they wanted Bayard. But I knew Bayard's lifestyle did not fit Atlanta at that stage, because there was nowhere that he could function in his manner without exposure. And Bayard isn't basically one to take on the nitty-gritty. [Laughter]
SUE THRASHER:
The mimeograph machine.
ELLA BAKER:
Because he's always had copious help. "Copious" is hardly the word to use, but in help . So this was the first time I was ever delegated, drafted without consultations. They used to meet Martin out at the airport and things like that. So come back and tell me that it had been decided that I would go down to set up the office of SCLC. So I was irritated at being the social architect or the what else would you be? That's the highest title I could give myself .
SUE THRASHER:
Or "junkie." [Laughter]
ELLA BAKER:
Or the junkie. Whichever one. [Laughter] I went with the idea of trying to set up an office. Nothing had been done. But through one of the professors at Morehouse, we found the office space and set up shop. And then began the whole process again of going through the mimeograph machine, writing the stuff, getting it out, calling people. And we had a couple of conferences.