Title: Oral History Interview with Ella Baker, September 4, 1974. Interview G-0007.
Interviewer: Walker, Eugene
Interviewee: Baker, Ella
Abstract: Ella Baker was an instrumental figure in the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) during the late 1950s and in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the early 1960s. Baker begins the interview by describing how her work in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from the late 1930s into the early 1950s gave her a strong background for understanding the conditions of racial segregation and discrimination in the Jim Crow South. According to Baker, the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, along with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1954, generated strong momentum for direct, collective action against segregation in the South. According to Baker, the SCLC was born out of that momentum, primarily at the behest of southern clergy. Arguing that the initial seeds of the SCLC were planted in a meeting she held with Bayard Rustin and Stanley Levinson, Baker describes how an executive committee was formed and how Martin Luther King Jr. emerged as the chosen spokesperson and president of the organization. From there, Baker goes on to explain why ministers were seen as appropriate leaders in the civil rights movement and how they continued to serve as the primary leaders within the SCLC. Baker describes SCLC as less ideological and more spontaneously oriented around philosophies of Christianity and Ghandian nonviolence. Baker spends considerable time describing her perception of the roles various leaders such as Rustin, Levinson, and King played in the organization, as well as the influence she exerted in selecting the SCLC's first executive director, Reverend John Tilly. Additionally, Baker explains why she never was appointed to an official position of leadership within the SCLC, despite the fact that she exercised a high level of responsibility in organizing meetings and activities, citing her age, her gender, and the fact that she was not a minister as the primary reasons for her "behind-the-scenes" role. Baker also spends considerable time in describing her role in the formation of SNCC and tensions between SNCC and other organizations, including the SCLC and the NAACP. According to Baker, SNCC found itself at odds with the more established organizations because of its youthful membership and its adherence to direct action. Researchers will be especially interested by Baker's insider perspective on the formation of and interactions between these preeminent civil rights organizations, as well as her candid portrait of civil rights leaders.