Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. By Barbara Ransby. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. 544 pp. Cloth, $34.95, ISBN 0-807-82778-9).
Reviewed by Benita Roth
In her fascinating new book, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision, Barbara Ransby notes that writing a biography of Ella Baker -- one of the largely unsung female heroes of the Civil Rights Movement -- was not easy. Baker left little in the way of statements, manifestos, diaries, and the like; her radical vision of grass-roots democracy militated against even her own efforts to document her tireless work on behalf of social change. What Ransby has done, therefore, in this book is to situate Baker at the center of milieus within which she worked, chiefly the Black Freedom movement, and within the broader American left.
Baker's career as an activist spanned more than four decades. In the 1930s, she was active in the Young Negroes Cooperative League, a group that attempted to alleviate the poverty of African Americans in both rural and urban communities through the formation of consumer cooperatives and buying clubs. In the 1940s, she traveled the country working for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In the 1950s, she was a central, although mostly invisible figure, in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In the 1960s, she helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In the 1970s, slowed down by age and illness, she was still active in movements for Puerto Rican independence and self-determination in the Third World. Ransby charts how Baker's life reads like a road map of the key social justice struggles of America's twentieth century- - civil rights, poverty, self-determination, labor, and even feminism.
Ransby argues, as do other scholars of Black women's activism, that Baker's activism exemplified the crucial role that Black women's often unacknowledged leadership played in the Civil Rights struggle (see Crawford et al. 1993; McNair Barnett 1993; Mueller 1990; Payne 1989, 1990; Robnett 1997). She is able to add to this scholarship, showing that developing leadership in others was central to Baker's radical democratic vision of organizing. Baker's role, then, was largely invisible, and in fact she so successfully achieved her goals that she organized herself out of a series of jobs. Ransby does a masterful job of describing just how indispensable Baker was in mobilizing many different organizations - and the difficulty of her task is evident in the book's "Appendix," where Ransby lists dozens of Baker's organizational affiliations.
Ransby shows how Baker's work was shaped by the models of female independence, integrity, and spiritual commitment that she learned from as the daughter of small landholders in rural North Carolina. Yet Baker's private life remained private. Despite her marriage (and subsequent divorce), people in the movement always called her by her maiden name, "Miss Baker." This separation of private and public woman was somewhat revolutionary for the time. Baker viewed herself as equal to the men who surrounded her, and considered herself responsible only to the people on whose behalf she worked. And she did it all with the good manners of a well-raised Southern African-American woman who also happened to be fond of wearing elegant hats.
Readers will come away from Ransby's book with more than a greater understanding of Ella Baker; they will also have an appreciation for the scope of movements for social change in the twentieth century. As an historical sociologist who studies postwar movements, including the links between feminism and the Civil Rights Movement, I was fascinated by Baker's relationships with various political activists in the American Left. At the same time, my two small but substantive criticisms of the book arise from my interest in social movement theory and history. First, I thought that Ransby could have been clearer about what she meant when she described a protest as "spontaneous." At times, "spontaneous" seems to serve as a substitute for "mobilized" when referring to periods of large-scale protest activity. As Ransby herself shows in her narrative, protest events almost never emerge in a truly spontaneous fashion -- that is, from thin air. All of Baker's organizing work is testimony to the planning involved in mobilizing protests for social change.
Secondly, Ransby notes Baker's sympathy for the Black feminist project, despite her lack of strong ties to any Black feminist group. The exception to this pattern was, apparently, Baker's involvement in the Third World Women's Alliance (TWWA), about which I and others have written (Anderson-Bricker 1999; Roth 2004; Springer 2001). The TWWA grew out of the Black Women's Liberation Committee, which was formed by women working within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who were troubled by the reactionary patriarchal politics of insurgent Black nationalism. Ransby does not explore Baker's work with the TWWA; instead, she spends a good deal of time in her chapter on SNCC portraying it as an organization with very benign gender politics. This seeming contradiction may simply be a product of timing -- Ransby's narrative focuses on an earlier period in SNCC's history -- but had Ransby made the links between organized Black feminism, SNCC, and Ella Baker's activism more explicit, it would have been a stronger book.
These two criticisms, however, should not discourage readers from Ransby's book. I would strongly recommend the book to anyone seeking to add to an understanding of the American left, of the Black Freedom movement, of women's activism, and of Baker herself. Given her radical grass-roots vision, Ella Baker may have protested occupying center stage -- but Ransby has made an important contribution to folks who want to carry on in Miss Baker's name.
Benita Roth is an associate professor of sociology and women's studies at the State University of New York, Binghamton. She is currently the William S. Vaughn Visiting Fellow at the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities at Vanderbilt University. Her book, Separate Roads to Feminism: Black, Chicana, and White Feminist Movements in America's Second Wave was published by Cambridge University Press in 2004.
Anderson-Bricker, Kristin. 1999. "'Triple Jeopardy': Black Women and the Growth of Feminist Consciousness in SNCC, 1964-1975." In Still Lifting, Still Climbing: Contemporary African American Women's Activism, edited by Kimberly Springer. New York: New York University Press.
Crawford, Vicki L. et al. 1993. Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers & Torchbearers 1941-1965. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
McNair Barnett, Bernice. 1993. "Invisible Southern Black Women Leaders in the Civil Rights Movement: The Triple Constraints of Gender, Race and Class." Gender & Society, 7:2:162-182.
Mueller, Carol. 1990. "Ella Baker and the Origins of `Participatory Democracy.'" In Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers & Torchbearers, 1941-1965, edited by Vicki L. Crawford, Jacqueline Anne Rouse, and Barbara Woods. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Payne, Charles. 1989. "Ella Baker and Models of Social Change." Signs (Summer): 885-899.
________. 1990. "Men Led: but Women Organized: Movement Participation of Women in the Mississippi Delta." In Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers & Torchbearers, 1941-1965, edited by Vicki L. Crawford, Jacqueline Anne Rouse, and Barbara Woods. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Robnett, Belinda. 1997. How Long? How Long?: African-American Women in the Struggle for Civil Rights. New York: Oxford University Press.
Roth, Benita. 2004. Separate Roads to Feminism: Black, Chicana, and White Feminist Movements in America's Second Wave. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Sacks, Karen. 1988. "Gender and Grassroots Leadership." In Women and the Politics of Empowerment, edited by Ann Bookman and Sandra Morgen. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Springer, Kimberly. 2001. "The Interstitial Politics of Black Feminist Organizations." Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism. 1:2: 155-91.
| All Reviews | Contents | In This Issue | About the Journal |
| Documents Projects and Archives | Teacher's Corner | Scholar's Edition | Full-Text Sources | About Us | Contact Us |