Ella Baker: A Radical Leader (by Alejandra Valencia)

STANDARDS: History-Social Science Content Standards

  • 11.10 Students analyze the development of federal civil rights and voting rights

Reading Standards for Literacy in History

  • Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationship among the key details and ideas
  • Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with the textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leave matters uncertain
  • Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including analyzing how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term over the course of a text
  • Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence
  • Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, qualitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem



The purpose of this lesson is to introduce students to the African American activist, Ella Baker and her contributions to the Freedom Struggle of the 1960s. The examination of Ella Baker’s, “Address at the Hattiesburg Freedom Day Rally” (21 January 1964) along with other works about Baker to guide students in the process of thinking critically about leadership, gender, race, religion, and justice during the 1960s. While learning about Ella Baker, students will also learn about other organizations like the Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The goal will be for students to understand and analyze how Ella Baker envisioned “freedom” and “justice” in her lifetime.

Throughout the lessons, students will be asked questions about race, religion, justice, and freedom. In the readings and discussions, they will explore these topics and learn to tell the story of the 1960s through a different lens. They will be asked to think critically about how race and gender fit into the leadership style Ella Baker chose and how it influenced the Movement. There are 3 layers in this class for understanding Ella Baker (1) Introduction of content- the importance of the movement (the Freedom Struggle) she was a part of (2) What her role was in these movements? (3) How was she similar and different compared to other leaders of her time?



Students will understand the importance of Ella Baker’s leadership style and her role in the Black Freedom Struggle.



  • Who is Ella Baker?
  • How did her leadership style differ from others of her time (the 1960s) and how did it impact the people she interacted with?
  • How does she define “justice” and “freedom”?
  • Why is Baker an influential figure in history?


  • Aaron Henry: An African American civil rights activist in Mississippi. He was the head of Mississippi branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He was one of the founders of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
  • Endowed: provide with a quality, ability, or asset.
  • Freedom Schools: they were temporary, alternative, and free schools for African Americans mostly in the South. They were originally used nationwide during the Civil Rights Movement to have African Americans achieve social, political, and economic equality in the United States.
  • Freedom Summer: also known as the Mississippi Summer Project; it was a volunteer campaign launched in June 1964 to attempt to register African American voters in Mississippi.
  • Hattiesburg: A city in Mississippi.
  • Leader: a person who guides the way, especially by going first.
  • Medgar Evers: An African American civil rights activist in Mississippi, the state’s field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and a World War II veteran, who had served in the United States Army.
  • Tacitly: in a way that is understood or implied without being directly stated.
  • Vestige: a trace of something that is disappearing or no longer exists.
  • White supremacy: the belief that white people are superior to those of all other races, especially the black race, and should therefore dominate society.



    Historically in the United States, there have been injustices that lead to movements that motivate people to become activists and advocates for the cause. One of these people was Ella Baker; she was an activist during the civil rights movement. As an adult, Baker analyzed the legacies of slavery and she began discussions about what African Americans needed to do to gain full equality in the United States. Much of her work was guided by the stories her grandparents told her about the “slavery days”, when she was asked address an audience, regardless of age she would return to those stories for inspiration.

    It is Ella Baker’s unique ideologies and leadership style, especially, during the Freedom Summer in 1964 that make her stand out. Her activism and her critique of the traditional model are often ignored in history yet it is known that she was held at high esteem by dozens of civil rights activists. Baker emphasizes the importance of the “cause” and the people versus the individual and leadership. In 1941, she became an organizer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Later in the mid-50s after Brown v. Board of Education rule the desegregation of schools, Baker was organizing rallies and raising money for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Her experience with organizing was pivotal in her role as the founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and its development of it as an organization. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was created after the first-wave of sit-ins after Ella Baker held a meeting. She advocated for having the youth at the forefront of the movement because she knew that they were the future.

    As a leader, she resisted the charismatic impulse embodied by Martin Luther King Jr. and she rejected the hierarchical model that relegated women to positions as servants. She criticized unchecked egos, elitism, and objected to undemocratic stances. Learning more and understanding Ella Baker as a key figure in history will give a provide a new perspective of the role black women had in the development of the Black Freedom Struggle.



    Ella Baker “Address at the Hattiesburg Freedom Rally” http://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/ella-baker-freedom-day-rally-speech-text/

    Ella Baker, Who Would Not Rest for Freedom https://claremont-illiad-oclc-org.ccl.idm.oclc.org/illiad/illiad.dll?Action=10&Form=75&Value=498767

    Lyrics to Ella Bakers Song https://docs.google.com/document/d/1lXDqaPFkP7Ra0Rw2e4PnJ-4Cfe0lOf0rY6QHkMF3Xkc/edit?usp=sharing

    The Grassroots Political Philosophy of Ella Baker: Oakland, California Applicability http://bsc.chadwyck.com.ccl.idm.oclc.org/search/proxyProquestPDF.do?PQID=749836847&GOID=Y&collectionsTag=&format=&fromPage=



    Day 1: During Class


  • Students will be presented with the lyrics to the song “Ella’s Song” by Sweet Honey in a Rock. They will listen to the song once during class.
  • After they listen to the song, they will be asked to discuss with a classmate what stuck out to them, and why is was significant to them. They are encouraged to write notes directly on the page with the lyrics.
  • When they finish analyzing the song, students will write two questions that they have about the song; they are encouraged to ask “how” and “why” questions.
  • The second piece will be passed out in class, Ella Baker’s “Address at the Hattiesburg Rally”
  • Students will get 10 minutes to read the address on their own and make notes about things they find interesting or confusing.
  • After they finish reading they will be asked to get into groups of three and share what they understood from the speech.
  • The instructor can probe using the questions that were provided. They can also add questions about justice and freedom. They will return to the questions they asked and decide whether some of those questions are directly answered by the text or if they can be answered indirectly by thinking critically.
  • Finally, students will be asked to share out loud what they learned, what they understood or were confused about, and what their questions were.


  • Students will read the assigned article “Free Agent in the Civil Rights Movement” by Aprele Elliott.
  • They should write a 1 page response about the reading that highlights the aspects of it that they were interested in, those that they thought were important, and others that they might have been confused by. They will use this to guide a discussion the next day. This will also serve to encourage them to look up words they might not be familiar with or learn the words’ meaning through context clues.

    Day 2: During Class


  • Students will be asked to participate in a socratic seminar. They will use the response that they wrote to guide their discussion and to find themes that people were drawn to. This will lead to an understanding about who Ella Baker was and what her gender meant in the context of her work.
  • After the discussion students should write a short reflection about what they learned and about what they still want to learn. They can emphasize aspects of what they have learned that they have found interesting and applicable to their own life.


  • Students will read the “The Grassroots Political Philosophy of Ella Baker: Oakland, California Applicability.” They can skim it and find sections of it that they find more interesting. The goal is to write a 3 page paper describing why leadership is important. They should use Ella Baker’s framework for leadership to guide them, but they should also think about their own lives and how they are leaders and how they challenge the norms about leadership.



    Moye, Todd J. Ella Baker: Community Organizer of the Civil Rights Movement. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2013.

    Ransby, Barbara. Ella Baker & the Black Freedom Movement. Chapel Hill; London: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003.