Ella Baker and Dreaming Direct Action

Graphic by Zawar Ahmed

2020 blurred past our windows. In Seattle, the change of seasons means a gentle turn into fog and gray rain. I wonder how you’ve been keeping time: by marking each catastrophe or by the slow slide into grief? To resist the blurriness, I have been taking this year day by day, savoring the ordinary. 

Without the structure and distraction of the work I put into living each cycle of 24 hours, every momentous occasion (recently there have been many) would take my breath away. I would wonder how we’d gotten to this point, and if we can still chart a path forward. I would find my world shattering, find myself unable to rebuild the pieces in any image. 

In the early dawn of May last year, I was assigned reading on the organizing strategies of Ella Baker and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Since then, I think Ella Baker has been holding my hand, pulling me through the slog of the last winter months. Preventing breakage. I’m writing this so maybe her spirit, pedagogy, and practice will move you to treasure your days as well. Knowing her will make your life better. 

Baker is a crucial figure to study, because she believed in a radical humanism focused on revolution as a transformative process, rather than simply as a result. Under her ideology, there is no waiting for the next great catastrophe or the next great leader or the next great anything. Instead, our everyday lives are the most compelling sources of meaning. Baker believed the key to change lay in the process of movement-building, in how we fight and breathe and grow. In other words, we build power through the focused organization of constant accountability, relationships, and daily resistance. The narrative which sensationalizes direct action, legal reform, and singular human beings obscures the tiny joys of transformation. It sucks the happiness and warmth out of organizing and leaves you with the shock, awe, violence, and anger of witnessing an explosion. 

Baker teaches us to break free of the scripted violence of society. Our learned helplessness. Her ideas about process and grassroots change encourage us to see past flashpoints of viciousness and create norms around community-building. Focusing on proper nouns (an organization, a march, a person) always fails us, because it doesn’t create the architecture for social change. Such dependency on leaders reinforces our collective helplessness in the face of crisis. After all, Baker believed that “no organization should last forever” — as our material needs change, it’s the people and their daily struggle that must remain. We are meant to focus on the verbs: the being, the healing, the loving. Therefore, when we reach a breaking point, not everything shatters, because the people will persist with agency, with dignity, and with love for one another. 

Baker eschewed organizational hierarchy in favor of class solidarity across the American South; after 1940, she served as a field secretary and the Director of Branches at the NAACP, moved to directing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and ultimately became what historian Barbara Ransby termed the “godmother of SNCC.” Each of these organizations is taught in history classes, but Baker’s name is often just a footnote. She headed wherever she saw the greatest need for her skillset, demonstrating her commitment to shared values over sectarian politics and her lifelong unwillingness to be deified, to be rendered a figurehead at any single  organization. She gained the affectionate nickname “Fundi,” from the Swahili term for someone who teaches a craft to the next generation. 

Baker had close friends threaded throughout the movement; they were diverse in opinion, class, and age. Yet she was able to connect with them through her radical humanism. Her career was devoted to giving countless local people ownership of the struggle they shared in actualizing the tenets of Black Power. Even while classist, respectability-focused national organizations spoke over those with the actual experience of oppression, she was on the ground talking to them and hearing their stories. 

If you learn from Ella Baker, you’re tapping into a deep well of power and wisdom. Saidiya Hartman poses the question: “How does one bring a minor revolution into view?” In other words, how does one claim and embody their own right to a future when even this small transformation is a radical act? With Baker, not only will you begin to recognize the minor revolutions, you will see how they form each step on the staircase to liberation. Baker didn’t learn her organizing from books. Instead, she drew from rich lived experience and from her encounters with everyday people over the course of her expansive travels. Likewise, her theory of change is inscribed in her daily practice, and she taught it through example. Getting to know Ella Baker is a chance to articulate her theory through your own practice. 

It’s only March, but observing the bitter anniversaries posed by the arrival of spring has already rendered many of us numb to the passing of days. But remember, there is rich political terrain in between quiescence and revolt. So will you begin to grasp at your own minor revolutions? How will you turn from helplessness and begin living your life for transformation and for joy?

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