She was given the name “Fundi” which is a Swahili word roughly meaning a person who passes down a craft to the next generation. It was this moniker that reflected the life work of Ella Baker, one of the most prominent female black activists of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.
Ella Josephine Baker was born in Norfolk, VA on December 13, 1903.
As a young child, Ella was greatly influenced by her grandmother’s stories of her experiences as a slave before emancipation. In one story, her grandmother described being whipped by her slave owner after refusing to marry a man chosen by her owner. This sense of intolerance to injustice was instilled within Ella as she grew up.
Ella attended Shaw University in North Carolina and graduated as class valedictorian in 1927. She then moved in New York City to find employment but also to begin social activist work.
In 1930 she joined the Young Negroes Cooperative League and other women’s organizations. She believed strongly in economic justice as well, declaring: “People cannot be free until there is enough work in this land to give everybody a job.”
At the beginning of the 1940s, Ella joined the NAACP.
In 1955, she was inspired by the Montgomery, AL bus boycott to form a group called In Friendship to raise funds to fight against Jim Crow laws in the South.
Two years later, she helped to organize Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
But Ella’s organizing spirit was not yet finished. In 1960, after the Woolworth’s counter sit in by black students in Greensboro, NC, she organized a meeting at Shaw University of the student leaders of the sit-in. It was this event that eventually led to the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
In her later years, Ella served as an advisor and provided counsel to other young people in organizing other social activist movements.
In 1981, her work was chronicled in a documentary film entitled, Fundi: The Story of Ella Baker.
She passed away on her 83rd birthday in December 1986.
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