A life defined by pragmatic radicalism
Radicalism today gets a bad rap. Quite often I hear people painting radical ideologies as impractical or belligerent. People treat radicalism as extremism for the hell of it, ignoring the genuine self-interest in challenging norms. Radicalism is much more than just some anarchist ass tattoos. To think radically is to think about the root causes of a problem. To be radical is to truly internalize your ideology and to live accordingly. While many people find themselves stretching to pull their ideology and practice together, Ella Baker (1903-1986) spent her life embodying her democratic ideals.
I recently read the 2003 biography of Ella Baker by Barbara Ransby titled Ella Baker & the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. Baker’s biography is a must-read for any organizer, or radical thinker. Her biography, which tells of her work as an exemplary social organizer for the Black Freedom Movement, is a manual for how to affect change in the world. Baker was kind, selfless, effective, and yes, she was a radical. Her total belief in equality was unfailing and she knew that change had to be made on the individual grassroots level. What makes Baker exceptional is how much she was able to accomplish while being neither didactic nor self-important. Ella Baker’s biography offers us insights into the life of a woman who skillfully led from behind, who was able to practice radicalism without polarization, and who’s legacy is quiet but far reaching.
“Strong people don’t need strong leaders.”- Ella Baker
During her long career as an activist, Ella Baker organized as a part of and worked for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She helped found Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and mentored students as they learned to organize. Baker chose not to see herself as a leader, but instead as a facilitator:
Instead of the leader as a person who was supposed to be a magic man, you could develop individuals who were bound together by a concept that benefited the large number of individuals and provided opportunity for them to grow into being responsible for carrying out a program. [i]
Baker’s organizing philosophy is true to non-hierarchal ideals. While action without a leader is difficult, it can be done and has been an important component of organizing that I have been a part of. Unless everyone has equal ownership over the work that a group does, a voice will go silenced, work will go undone, and the original intention of social justice organizing—to be empowered—steps aside in favor of top-down organization.
“You’ve got to coalesce from a position of power, not just for the sake of saying ‘we’re together.’” -Ella Baker
Baker rarely labeled her activism. This pragmatism made her effective in bringing together people for their common interest rather than dividing them based on socially constructed barriers. Many people feel the need to state their ideology as an identity. People claim, “I am a Marxist/Conservative/Socialist/Republican/ Libertarian/Anarchist,” etc. While this can help communicate ideas, it can also be an impediment to effective organizing if it is not paired with discussion or action. This can be challenging for those of us (myself included) who feel impassioned by their cause and are excited to have words for it. Baker insists that, while language is powerful, it cannot impede action. This is never more clear than in her conflicted opinion of the Black Power movement, which she supported and saw merit to, but also view ineffective organizing. Baker believed that, “You’ve got to coalesce from a position of power, not just for the sake of saying ‘we’re together.’” In her biography Ransby writes:
It was the very way that she looked at the world that made her difficult to label. Since she saw revolution as a process, as a living experiment in creative vision and collaboration; very little, in her opinion, could be predetermined (130).
Throughout Ella Baker’s career as an organizer she demanded that every issue—whether she was organizing for black consumer leagues, advocating for domestic workers, or boycotting—was considered thoughtfully and not glossed over by simple doctrine.
While, from my discursive perspective, I would like to label Baker as a face of Feminism, of Black Power, and of Socialism, this would do her an injustice. Baker was a social justice advocate who worked to appeal beyond the restrictions of political ideologies and ascribed identities. The egalitarianism in Baker’s method—the quiet implementation of her voice and body—makes her an important historical figure, one that asks not to be celebrated, but rather offers herself to be emulated. Baker lived a life defined by pragmatic radicalism, and right now, I am (historically) crushing on her.
-Nicole Hasslinger, Academic Editor
[i] Ransby, Barbara. Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.