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 historian and storyteller whose research interests include black higher education and college student activism, DR. CRYSTAL A. deGREGORY is a research fellow at Middle Tennessee State University’s Center for Historic Preservation in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. A graduate of the historic Fisk, Vanderbilt, and Tennessee State universities, she is a passionate Historically Black College and University (HBCU) advocate, convener of the HBCUstory Symposium, and editor-in-chief of The Journal of HBCU Research + Culture. Follow her online at @HBCUstorian.