Godmother of SNCC: Remembering Shaw Alumna Ella Baker

Today marks the closing date of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee‘s (SNCC) founding meeting, held at Shaw University April 15-17, 1960.

Students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) gathered under the guidance of Shaw alumna, Ella Josephine Baker and Spelman College professor Howard Zinn, to formally organize their efforts to dismantle Jim Crow through nonviolent protest.

A true renaissance woman, Baker, who was valedictorian of her Shaw 1927 graduating class, had already earned a name for herself as a writer, teacher and activist long before SNCC’s founding meeting. Deeply influenced by the expressions of Harlem Renaissance personalities, her friendship with historian John Henrik Clarke and Episcopal priest Pauli Murray was also formative in the development of her activist personality.

Baker’s long association with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began in 1938 and was followed by her pivotal role in the Martin Luther King, Jr.’s  fledgling Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Although sexism within the SCLC barred her from becoming the organization’s permanent executive director, Baker was indispensable to the SCLC’s success between 1957 and 1960.

Hailed “Godmother of SNCC,” Baker guided SNCC activists through its early development. Most notably, she persuaded the young activists to form two formed two wings–one wing for direct action and a second wing for voter registration. She deeply influenced the most dynamic leaders of the black college student movement. Heroes and heroines like Diane Nash, Julian Bond, Bob Moses, Stokely Carmichael and Bernice Johnson Reagon looked up to Baker. Her leadership style made an indelible impact on them and they in turn, left an indelible impression on us.

“Strong people,” Baker remarked, “don’t need strong leaders.”

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A member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., Crystal A. deGregory, Ph.D. is a graduate of the historic Fisk University ’03. She received her master’s and doctoral degrees in history from Vanderbilt University. She also holds a master of education degree in curriculum and instruction from Tennessee State University, ’14, where she formerly taught in the department of history, geography and political science. A professional historian and passionate HBCU advocate, she is editor-in-chief of the forthcoming The Journal of HBCU Research + Culture. She is also a regular contributor to HBCU Digest, is a co-host of Black Docs radio show, and offers a wide-range of expertise on multiple topics including history, culture, education, black fraternity and sorority life and of course HBCUs. Follow her on twitter at @HBCUstorian, visit her website at www.CrystaldeGregory.com, or contact her via email at cadegregory@HBCUstory.com.