I woke up this morning thinking about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And then I began thinking about Ella Baker, whose model of “group-centered leadership” I have recently been meditating on and writing about.
I heard Dr. King speak in person twice during the 60’s, once at Grinnell College in Iowa a few months before he was assassinated. When he was killed 50 years ago, on April 4th, 1968, I began what became 50 years of progressive activism by posting a petition to Congress on the wall of the student mail room that night. About half the students had signed it by the end of the following day and I sent it off to Mike McCormack and Hubert Humphrey, the leaders of the House and Senate.
I met and worked with Ella Baker for several years in the mid- to late-70’s after I moved to New York City. Ms. Baker was part of the leadership for a while of a group I was working with, the Mass Party Organizing Committee, and I have always been so grateful for that privilege. I would like to think that I learned much about how to be an effective organizer from the time spent with her and the things about her that I learned from others.
Dr. King and Ella Baker were the two primary leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in its first couple of years of existence, between 1958 and 1960. King was the heart, soul and speaking voice of SCLC; Baker was the Executive Secretary. Baker was a public speaker too, but she was primarily the behind-the-scenes,…