On MLK Day, Honor the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement, Too

7 minute read

Scelfo is a former staff writer for the New York Times and author of The Women Who Made New York.

When Americans across the country pay tribute to a civil rights leader that President Ronald Reagan described as America’s “preeminent nonviolent commander,” most people will, appropriately, be thinking of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in whose honor the federal holiday was established in 1983.

But there is a lesser-known civil rights figure without whom Dr. King’s work—and nothing less than the entire civil rights movement of the 1960s—may not have succeeded, and whose absence from the iconography of American history is a disservice to all citizens: Ella J. Baker.

A granddaughter of slaves who graduated valedictorian from Raleigh’s Shaw University in 1927, Baker spent nearly half a century raising the political consciousness of Americans, and played a major role in three of the 20th century’s most influential civil rights groups: the National Association or the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”).

While those groups typically had male figureheads, it was Baker who, first as an NAACP field secretary and later as its director of branches, spent the 1940s traveling from small town to small town, convincing ordinary black citizens—who had been enslaved and terrorized for more than 200 years—to join together and peaceably insist that they were deserving of basic human rights.

Born in Norfolk, Virginia, Baker grew up in rural North Carolina, where she developed a deep sense of self-respect. Her parents shared their food with hungry neighbors; her grandmother told how she endured a savage whipping rather than agree to marry a man chosen for her by a master.

Utilizing her iron will and a gift for listening, Baker helped local leaders carefully craft and implement targeted campaigns against lynching, for job training and for black teachers to get equal pay. She also was adept at recognizing talent and helped coax capable rank and file members into taking leadership roles; among the participants at one of her workshops was an NAACP member from Montgomery, Alabama, named Rosa Parks.

After resigning from the national organization in 1946 (she had returned to Harlem to raise a niece), Baker stayed involved with its New York chapter, and in 1952 was elected its president, the first-ever woman in that role. There, she built coalitions with other groups, worked on a campaign to end school segregation, and even publicly confronted the mayor.

But after the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott (touched off by Rosa Park’s refusal to yield her seat to a white man on December 1, 1955) many black leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., decided they wanted to establish a formal organization to build similar boycotts throughout the south.

Dr. King, a gifted speaker, was chosen to be the organization’s figurehead. According to several historians, including biographer Barbara Ransby, writing in her book Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision, it was Baker who principally framed the issues and set the group’s agenda. In 1958, she moved to Atlanta to spearhead what had become the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the group primarily associated with Dr. King.

For two and a half years, in an era before the Internet, rolodexes or social media, Baker utilized her skills, experience and contacts to plan events, identify and establish protests and campaigns, and select and trained various individuals to lead them.

Her relationship with Dr. King, however, was tense: Despite her level of experience and proven track record, he had difficulty allowing a woman’s decisions to trump his own, and her idea was that the organization should devote its resources more to promoting and enabling its overall mission rather than celebrating a charismatic leader. Wyatt Tee Walker, an early SCLC board member, told the filmmaker Joanne Grant that the ministers’ refusal to follow Baker’s advice was in practice with the era’s norms. “This was before the days of women’s liberation,” he says in the 1981 film Fundi: The Story of Ella Baker. Going to great lengths to avoid the word “chauvinists,” Mr. Walker instead explains how unless someone was “male” and a member of the “inner circle of the church,” that it could be difficult to overcome “the preacher ego.”

Frustrated, Baker was on the brink of resigning in 1960, when a group of college students refused to leave a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Having always believed that meaningful change happens on the streets (and not just from court rulings), she wrote a letter on SCLC letterhead calling student leaders all over the South to join and begin working together. The days-long conference, held over Easter weekend at Shaw University, yielded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a youth-lead group that helped organize the 1961 Freedom Rides, directed many of the black voter registration drives in the South and drew national attention during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 when three SNCC workers were killed by white supremacists.

So if Baker was so important, why isn’t her name as well-known to Americans as Dr. King’s or Rosa Parks, for that matter?

For starters, Baker was never interested in the spotlight and devoted no effort whatsoever to seeking recognition. Instead, like all the world’s greatest teachers and editors, she enjoyed the pleasure of watching others reach their own potential. “I found a greater sense of importance by being a part of those who were growing,” Baker said in Grant’s film.

Secondly, despite Baker’s gifts for leadership and oratory, the SCLC pastors, intent on preserving their patriarchal hierarchy, refused to allow her to share in their prestige. Despite protests from key advisors, Dr. King initially granted her only the title of provisional executive director, which obscured her true importance.

Finally, there is the nature of storytelling itself, and the inherent difficulty of conveying in a compelling way what could be described as the nuts and bolts of emotional labor. Baker spent years of her life performing the essential—but far from glamorous—act of listening, a crucial first step in helping beleaguered blacks develop enough self-worth to demand being treated with dignity in an environment where they had every reason to fear brutality and economic reprisal from their white neighbors. She also understood group dynamics and how to empower people to join forces, a delicate task that involves responding to a wide array of human feelings.

A narrative about this kind of work is inherently less dramatic and far more complicated than, say, the tale of a discreet act of bravery on a bus.

But great leaders have recognized for centuries that high emotional intelligence, or the ability to recognize and respond to other people’s feelings, is central to successfully influencing them.

So I will be honoring Dr. King—and recalling the wearying 15-year struggle it took to enact the federal holiday after Rep. John Conyers of Michigan first introduced legislation four days after Dr. King’s murder in 1968.

But why not also pay tribute to Ella Baker, the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement? Without her, Americans of all colors may never have received Dr. King’s messages.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.