At Shaw University (Raleigh, NC) in 1960, Ella Baker leads a conference that results in the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the principal organizations of the African-American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

On the heels of regional desegregation sit-ins led by black college students, Baker persuaded the SCLC to invite southern university students to the Southwide Youth Leadership Conference at Shaw University on Easter weekend. At this meeting the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was formed. The SNCC became the most active organization in the Delta, and it was relatively open to women. Following the conference Baker resigned from the SCLC and began a long and intimate relationship with SNCC (pronounced “snick”). Along with Howard Zinn, Baker was one of SNCC’s highly revered adult advisors, called the “Godmother of SNCC.” In 1961 Ella Baker persuaded the SNCC to form two wings: One wing for direct action and the Second wing for voter registration. It was with Baker’s help that SNCC (along with Congress of Racial Equality) coordinated the region-wide freedom rides of 1961 and began to work closely with black sharecroppers and others throughout the South. Ella Baker insisted that “strong people don’t need strong leaders,” and criticized the notion of a single charismatic leader at the helm of movements for social change. Ella Baker pushed the idea of “Participatory Democracy”, therefore, she wanted each person to get involved individually. She also argued that “people under the heel,” referring to the most oppressed sectors of any community, “had to be the ones to decide what action they were going to take to get (out) from under their oppression.” She was a teacher and mentor to the young people of SNCC, highly influencing the thinking of such important figures as Julian Bond, Diane Nash, Stokely Carmichael, Curtis Muhammad, Bob Moses, and Bernice Johnson Reagon, who wrote a song in Baker’s honor, called “Ella’s Song.” Through SNCC, Baker’s ideas of group-centered leadership and the need for radical democratic social change spread throughout the student movements of the 1960s. Her ideas influenced the philosophy of participatory democracy put forth by Students for a Democratic Society, the major antiwar group of the day. These ideas also influenced a wide range of radical and progressive groups that would form in the 60s and 70s.

Ella Josephine Baker was an African American civil rights and human rights activist beginning in the 1930s. She was a behind-the-scenes activist whose career spanned over five decades. She worked alongside some of the most famous civil rights leaders of the twentieth century, including: W. E. B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, A. Philip Randolph, and Martin Luther King Jr. She also mentored such then-young civil rights stalwarts as Diane Nash, Stokely Carmichael, Rosa Parks and Bob Moses.