For our January Delegates’ Meeting, AIM leaders read about civil rights leader Ella Baker—the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement”—and her model of collective leadership. We discussed Ella Baker’s “confidence in the wisdom of ordinary people” and the hard work it takes to build a movement.

As we continue our listening sessions throughout the month of February, inviting our neighbors to share their deepest longings and welcoming new leaders into our work, we can turn to the wisdom of Ms. Ella Baker to stay rooted in a model of leadership that is uniquely “impactful, democratic, […] radical and sustainable.”

Excerpt from Developing Community Leadership, Ella Baker

I have always felt it was a handicap for oppressed peoples to depend so largely upon a leader, because unfortunately in our culture, the charismatic leader usually becomes a leader because he has found a spot in the public limelight. It usually means he has been touted through the public media, which means that the media made him, and the media may undo him. There is also the danger in our culture that, because a person is called upon to give public statements and is acclaimed by the establishment, such a person gets to the point of believing that he is the movement. Such people get so involved with playing the game of being important that they exhaust themselves and their time, and they don’t do the work of actually organizing people. […]

I thought of myself as an individual with a certain amount of sense of the need of people to participate in the movement. I have always thought what is needed is the development of people who are interested not in being leaders as much as in developing leadership among other people. Every time I see a young person who has come through the system to a stage where he could profit from the system and identify with it, but who identifies more with the struggle of black people who have not had his chance, every time I find such a person I take new hope. I feel a new life as a result of it.

Video: Ella Baker, Mother of the Civil Rights Movement

Excerpt from “Ella Taught Me: Shattering the Myth of the Leaderless Movement,” Dr. Barbara Ransby, Colorlines

Those who romanticize the concept of leaderless movements often misleadingly deploy Ella Baker’s words, ”Strong people don’t need [a] strong leader.” Baker delivered this message in various iterations over her 50-year career working in the trenches of racial-justice struggles, but what she meant was specific and contextual. She was calling for people to disinvest from the notion of the messianic, charismatic leader who promises political salvation in exchange for deference. Baker also did not mean that movements would naturally emerge without collective analysis, serious strategizing, organizing, mobilizing and consensus-building.

Baker, a lead organizer in multiple groups dating back to 1930, a colleague and critic of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the impetus for the 1960 formation of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), knew this better than anyone. Although she objected to the top-down, predominately male leadership structures that were typical of groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) and the NAACP in the 1950s and ’60s, she realized the necessity for grounded, community-based leader-organizers such as sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer and Cleveland [Sellers], Mississippi-based local organizer Amzie Moore. Baker was not against leadership. She was opposed to hierarchical leadership that disempowered the masses and further privileged the already privileged.

When Oprah Winfrey complained that recent protests against police violence lack leadership, she was describing the King style of leading, or at least the way in which the King legacy has been most widely branded: the reverend as the strong, all-knowing, slightly imperfect but still not-like-us type of leader.
Baker represented a different leadership tradition altogether. She combined the generic concept of leadership—”A process of social influence in which a person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task”—and a confidence in the wisdom of ordinary people to define their problems and imagine solution. Baker helped everyday people channel and congeal their collective power to resist oppression and fight for sustainable, transformative change. Her method is not often recognized, celebrated or even seen except by many who are steeped in the muck of movement-building work. Yet Baker and her hardworking political progenies were essential.

I underscore this because while some forms of resistance might be reflexive and simple—that is, when pushed too hard, most of us push back, even if we don’t have a plan or a hope of winning—organizing a movement is different. It is not organic, instinctive or ever easy. If we think we can all “get free” through individual or uncoordinated small-group resistance, we are kidding ourselves.

This is not a news flash to serious organizers, past or present. The veterans from the 1960s and ’70s (SNCC and the Black Panther Party as two of the best-known examples), held meetings, workshops, debates, strategy sessions and reading groups to forge the consensus that enabled thousands of people to work under the same rubric and, more or less, operate out of the same playbook, splits and differences notwithstanding.

That collective effort required leaders who were accountable to one another and were not singular. There were many organizers in groups such as SNCC who modeled Baker’s brand of what sociologist Charles Payne has called “group-centered leadership.”

Rather than someone with a fancy title standing at a podium speaking for or to the people, group-centered leaders are at the center of many concentric circles. They strengthen the group, forge consensus and negotiate a way forward. That kind of leadership is impactful, democratic, and, I would argue, more radical and sustainable, than the alternatives.

Header photo by Stephen Melkisethian is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.