This is part of an ongoing Washington Informer series about the Women’s Suffrage Movement and an initiative that includes Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes that will use the lens of history, the fabric of art and culture and the venue of the public square to shine a light into dark places, equipping all with a compass to chart the way forward. The initiative lives in the institutional home of the Washington Informer Charities.
The Speaking While Female Speech Bank, the first online collection of women’s speech from across time and around the world, includes two speeches by Ella Josephine Baker — “Address at the Hattiesburg Freedom Day Rally” in 1964 and “Making the Struggle Every Day” in 1974.
Born in 1903, Baker was just a teenager when the 19th Amendment became law enabling women the right to vote. Her youth didn’t prevent Baker from attacking unfair policies and standing as a firm advocate of women suffrage.
“Ella Baker used her powerful voice to speak out for the world she believed in, one in which every human being is respected, regardless of race, gender, and ethnicity,” said Dana Rubin, founder of The Speaking While Female Speech Bank which celebrates women’s public speech with more than 1,800 examples of women using their voices for change.
“This was in an era when women’s ideas and voices were generally not well received in the public square,” Rubin said of Baker’s advocacy.
“At the famous March on Washington, in August 1963, only two women spoke — Ella Baker, and Josephine Baker, the dancer, and performer. Ella Baker was a powerful role model for generations of women, especially African-American women — but truly all women — who can look up to her and see an example of a strong woman stepping up and speaking out for her beliefs,” Rubin said.
Aneika Simmons, a professor of business at Sam Houston State University in Texas, said women like Baker are important because they manifested both courage and hope.
“They were courageous enough to persistently fight against an unjust system that subjugated and discriminated against them purely based on color,” Simmons said.
“They were hopeful enough to believe that a new way of living that included both liberation and opportunities were possible, despite their race and ethnicity,” she said.
Simmons also noted that Baker graduated valedictorian from Raleigh’s Shaw University in 1927.
“As an educator, I am particularly inspired by her as she understood the power of education, and how to build on this foundation through her efforts with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the National Association or the Advancement of Colored People,” Simmons said.
Baker grew up in North Carolina and derived motivation from the story of her grandmother, who, as a slave, suffered beatings from her slave owner because she refused to marry a man the owner had chosen for her.
According to Baker’s official biography, it was her grandmother’s pride and resilience in the face of racism and injustice that inspired Baker throughout her life.
In 1930, Baker joined several women’s organizations and the Young Negroes Cooperative League, whose purpose was to develop Black economic power through collective planning. In 1940, she worked as a field secretary for the NAACP, later serving as director of branches.
After the historic bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, Baker co-founded the organization, In Friendship, to raise money to fight Jim Crow Laws in the South.
In 1957, Baker moved to Atlanta to help organize Martin Luther King’s new organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She also ran a voter registration campaign called the Crusade for Citizenship, according to her biography.
Following the February 1960 sit-ins at North Carolina A&T University, Baker began assisting new student activists and later organized a meeting at Shaw University for the student leaders of the sit-ins.
From that meeting, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee began.
“As a woman of color, I appreciate Ella Baker had a solid belief system regarding the value of women and Blacks,” said Lisa Lewis Ellis, CEO and founder of Kick Boxing Believers, LLC, and the author of “Today I Choose Me,” a collaborative book that shares the stories of a few women of color discovering the need to value themselves.
“Even at a young age, she valued her gender and her race,” Ellis said. “Her strong belief system fueled and grounded her activism against institutions and individuals that devalued others of her gender and race. She empowered others to not only value themselves but also champion for their right to be valued.
“Today, we have come a long way,” she said. “However, the need still exists for us, as women of color, to value ourselves, our rights, and our representation. Ella Baker has blazed a trail for us to follow.”