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Oral History Interview with Ella Baker, September 4, 1974. Interview G-0007. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007).
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  • 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.
  • Foundation for the SCLC
  • Factors leading to the formation of the SCLC and its early leadership
  • Early leadership of the SCLC and the role of ministers
  • Formation of SNCC and the importance of collective action
  • Opposition of the NAACP to the SCLC's Crusade for Citizenship
  • Drafted to organize, but not "a person of authority"
  • Why Baker did not attain an official leadership position within the SCLC
  • Decision-making processes and deferment to Martin Luther King Jr.
  • The SCLC and spontaneous collective action
  • Youthful and direct action of SNCC and its expectations of leadership
  • Professional relationship with Martin Luther King Jr.
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  • Finding aid to the Southern Oral History Program Collection
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  • The Southern Oral History Program transcripts presented here on Documenting the American South undergo an editorial process to remove transcription errors. Texts may differ from the original transcripts held by the Southern Historical Collection.

    Funding from the Institute for Museum and Library Services supported the electronic publication of this title.