Ella Baker: 10 Facts

Ella Baker was one of the great civil right leaders of the 20th century. Working alongside Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall and others, she helped make the United States more equal. Dec. 13 is the anniversary of both Baker's birth in 1903 and death in 1986. That she died on her 83rd birthday is just one of many fascinating facts about Baker. Here are 10 more:

1. One of Baker's early influences was her grandmother, who had been a slave. Baker's grandmother told her stories of slave revolts and related her own sad tale of being whipped for refusing to agree to an arranged marriage.

2. Baker was valedictorian of her class at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina.

3. After college, Baker moved to New York City, where she immersed herself in the culture of the Harlem Renaissance. While working for the Works Progress Administration, she became politically involved, protesting Italy's invasion of Ethiopia, supporting Alabama's Scottsboro defendants, and advocating for local action and grass roots campaigns for social change.

4. Baker was married for about 21 years to her college sweetheart, T.J. "Bob" Roberts. Their busy lives made marriage difficult, and they divorced in 1958.

5. In 1940, Baker began working for the NAACP as a secretary. By 1943, she had risen to become director of branches, making her the organization's highest-ranked woman. She worked for the NAACP until 1953, when she resigned to run an unsuccessful campaign for New York City Council.

6. In 1957, Baker attended the inaugural conference of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).Once the organization became official, Baker was the first staff member hired, working as a community organizer.

7. Baker next turned her skills as an organizer to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which she helped form as she guided students who were leading campus sit-ins to work together as a larger movement. So important was Baker to the SNCC that she became known as the organization's godmother. Among other initiatives, Baker helped the SNCC launch the Freedom Rides in 1961.

8. Through SNCC, Baker mentored many of the young people who formed a new generation of civil rights leaders, among them Rosa Parks, Stokely Carmichael, Julian Bond, Diane Nash and Bob Moses.

9. Among Baker's most passionately held beliefs was, as she put it, that "strong people don't need strong leaders." She believed the various organizations working toward civil rights would suffer if they were led by individuals with great influence and power. That philosophy sometimes led her to clash with Martin Luther King Jr., among others.

10. Since Baker was most in her element behind the scenes, she didn't become as well known as some other civil rights leaders. It appeared that this was fine by her –– indeed, it was what she preferred. In her own words, "You didn't see me on television, you didn't see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come." Throughout her life and her career as an activist, she put her skills to work, bringing people together to make change happen.