Ella Baker’s Radical Democratic Vision

Ella Baker was one of the unsung leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. What can she teach us about movement-building today?

Ella Baker speaks at a news conference on January 3, 1968. Jack Harris / AP

Who gets to tell the story? This is a question implicit in the work I do as a historian. But the question I have been wrestling with lately is more immediate: who gets to shape the narrative, define the history-makers, and capture the words and images of the current black-led, anti-state-violence movement evolving in the United States right now?

Even the act of naming a movement like this has its power. Last month the New York Times Magazine bestowed part of the defining privilege on a young former sports writer, Jay Caspian Kang. Kang reduced the growing movement to the personal story lines of two young, earnest, and committed social media activists, DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta “Netta” Elzie.

While their work has made a critical contribution, Kang frames that work in a way that misrepresents the larger movement. With a narrow range of sources, Kang’s piece concluded that “Twitter is the revolution,” that “our demand is simple: stop killing us,” and that the emergent movement is “leaderless.”

The New York Times Magazine profile was problematic on each of these points. Borrowing from my research on Ella Baker and my own participation in social movements, I want to refute the notion that this movement is leaderless. As some contemporary youth activists such as #BlackLivesMatter cofounder and Dignity and Power Now founder Patrisse Cullors have asserted, their movement is not leaderless, it is leader-full.

The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted

Many of our sisters and brothers are masterful users, but social media does not have magical powers. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are tools like any other invention. The printing press revolutionized movement-building and revolution-making. So did the radio, telephone, television, personal computer, cell phone, and a whole variety of media.

Social media tools can lend themselves to many different — and contradictory — purposes. They can bring attention to injustice, communicate the logistics of demonstrations — and they can sell you just about any worthless new commodity on the planet. And while Twitter is a uniquely open platform to exchange ideas, argue, celebrate, commiserate, and mobilize, a Twitter following does not take the place of an organization.

Twitter is personality-driven, anonymous when convenient, and an opportunity for spectatorship as much as engagement. We don’t know how many of our followers are actually supporters, just as we don’t know if all our Facebook friends actually like us. And even retweeting frequently comes with the caveat, “retweet does not constitute agreement.” Moreover, these recent technologies are also the site for ever more sinister and sophisticated forms of government surveillance.

This is why leadership and organizing cannot be simply tweeted into existence. Movement-building is forged in struggle, through people building relationships within organizations and collectives. Social media is only one part of a much larger effort.

While the mainstream media is all abuzz about social media as if it were a stand-alone entity, it tends to ignore or render invisible the critical work of leader-organizers who are more focused on street action than virtual action. This bias toward social media work woefully distorts not only how we understand this evolving movement, but also how we see social movements in general.

Ella Taught Me

Those who romanticize the concept of leaderless movements often misleadingly deploy Baker’s words, “Strong people don’t need [a] strong leader.” Baker delivered this message in various iterations over her fifty-year career working in the trenches of racial-justice struggles, but what she meant was specific and contextual. She was calling for people to disinvest from the notion of the messianic, charismatic leader who promises political salvation in exchange for deference. Baker also did not mean that movements would naturally emerge without collective analysis, serious strategizing, organizing, mobilizing, and consensus-building.

Baker, a lead organizer in multiple groups dating back to 1930, a colleague and critic of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, and the impetus for the 1960 formation of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), knew this better than anyone.

Although she objected to the top-down, predominately male leadership structures that were typical of groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) and the NAACP in the 1950s and ’60s, she realized the necessity for grounded, community-based leader-organizers such as sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer and Cleveland, Mississippi–based local organizer Amzie Moore. Baker was not against leadership. She was opposed to hierarchical leadership that disempowered the masses and further privileged the already privileged.

When Oprah Winfrey complained that recent protests against police violence lack leadership, she was describing the King style of leading, or at least the way in which the King legacy has been most widely branded: the reverend as the strong, all-knowing, slightly imperfect but still not-like-us type of leader.

Baker represented a different leadership tradition altogether. She combined the generic concept of leadership — “A process of social influence in which a person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task” — and a confidence in the wisdom of ordinary people to define their problems and imagine solutions.

Baker helped everyday people channel and congeal their collective power to resist oppression and fight for sustainable, transformative change. Her method is not often recognized, celebrated, or even seen except by many who are steeped in the muck of movement-building work. Yet Baker and her hardworking political progenies were essential.

I underscore this because while some forms of resistance might be reflexive and simple — that is, when pushed too hard, most of us push back, even if we don’t have a plan or a hope of winning — organizing a movement is different. It is not organic, instinctive, or ever easy. If we think we can all “get free” through individual or uncoordinated small-group resistance, we are kidding ourselves.

This is not a news flash to serious organizers, past or present. The veterans from the 1960s and ’70s (SNCC and the Black Panther Party are two of the best-known examples) held meetings, workshops, debates, strategy sessions, and reading groups to forge the consensus that enabled thousands of people to work under the same rubric and, more or less, operate out of the same playbook, splits and differences notwithstanding.

That collective effort required leaders who were accountable to one another and were not singular. There were many organizers in groups such as SNCC who modeled Baker’s brand of what sociologist Charles Payne has called “group-centered leadership.”

Rather than someone with a fancy title standing at a podium speaking for or to the people, group-centered leaders are at the center of many concentric circles. They strengthen the group, forge consensus, and negotiate a way forward. That kind of leadership is impactful, democratic, and, I would argue, more radical and sustainable than the alternatives.

Who’s Up Next

We see many examples of group-centered leadership among today’s young organizers. They combine their own vision and experience with respect for the collective will.

For example, in contrast to the amorphousness, transience, and sometimes-awkward anonymity of social media, if you join Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100) you know what you are signing up for. You know that the fast-growing group of eighteen-to-thirty-five-year-olds has been leading anti–police violence protests from the Bay Area to New York. You know it embraces a black feminist approach that seeks to build transformative leadership, employs nonviolent direct action, and operates through a black queer lens.

Thus, through organizational process, BYP100 has staked its claim on a set of ideas, politics, and tactics. It has a leadership philosophy, structure, and specific requirements for membership. At the same time, it is open, democratic, accessible, and collaborative with other organizations. Groups like BYP100 are playing a critical role in movement-building, yet they are often invisible to the mainstream and even alternative media.

Another example of the work of leader-organizers being erased from current movement-building narratives is the crude appropriation of the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) banner. Three black women immersed in labor, immigrants rights, and social justice organizing conceived of the term in 2012 in the wake of the Trayvon Martin murder case. The term became ubiquitous in 2014 after a series of high-profile, racist police and extra-judicial killings.

Unrelated groups and social media users then changed the phrase to “All Lives Matter,” diminishing the originators’ intent. In the whole process, the slogan was lifted and re-appropriated as if it had dropped from the sky. The initiators had no identity, no context, no grounding.

Fortunately, one of those initiators, Alicia Garza, an organizer with Domestic Workers Alliance, wrote a powerful piece pushing back against the revisionist narrative that would delete her role and that of her two co-creators, Cullors and Opal Tometi. They did not make this statement to claim authorship in an individualistic way, but rather to locate the roots of BLM in a place, community, and lived experience.

About two months ago, I had the privilege of cohosting a Chicago gathering of about fifty young, anti–police violence organizers from around the country, including the three BLM creators. Those gathered were a serious, eclectic, savvy collection of eighteen- to thirty-five-year-olds (and a few of us older supporters) from twelve states. They embodied the kind of grassroots, unapologetically radical leadership that would have made Ella Baker very proud.

Turning Theory Into Practice

In my thirty years of working in many different groups, campaigns, and movements, I have been a part of efforts, not always successful, to strike the balance between mass mobilizing and organization-building; between inclusivity and accountability; and between strategic actions and spontaneous ones.

Groups I’ve worked with have formed rotating steering and coordinating committees instead of electing officers. They’ve met regularly and devised ways for there to be lots of talking, learning, processing, and thinking out loud together. Communication was always key, and accountability has been crucial.

I have found that without organizations, coalitions, and leadership teams, there is no collective strategy or accountability. An independent or freelance activist may share their opinion, and it may be an informed one, but if these words are not spoken in consultation or conversation with people on the ground, they are limited as a representation of a movement’s thinking and work.

When a leader-organizer puts him, her, or themselves on record as being a part of a larger whole, that group can say, “You can or cannot speak for us. We agreed to X, and you did Y. We were counting on you, and you opted out just when we needed you.” That is accountability.

In turn, the collective can support those who act as representatives or spokespersons at any given moment. This rough formula gets complicated the larger and more diverse a movement gets. Still, the fundamental idea works.

We Need Structure

In 1970, in reference to the predominantly white Second Wave feminist movement that was just getting off the ground, feminist activist Jo Freeman wrote “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” In this essay she argues that the notion of a movement without either structure or leaders obscures and privileges in corrosive ways. In a leaderless movement anyone can name, negotiate, convene, and demand while simultaneously eschewing the label and responsibilities of leadership. At the end of the day, these people are beholden to no one.

In order for activists to craft specific goals and demands wedded to a solid justice agenda built on the needs and aspirations of the most oppressed sectors of our communities, leadership, accountability, and organization are necessary ingredients.

That said, let me also caution against the tyranny of leadership to offset Freeman’s “tyranny of structurelessness.” One should not have to formally join an organization, pay dues, or be subject to group mandates to play a respected role in social struggles.

In fact, it is the job of radically democratic organizations and leaders to make sure that entry points and creative spaces remain open. Groups can become closed, defensive, and even conservative if they don’t remain inclusive and pliable. The democratic centralist models of the Old and New US Left offer cautionary examples of organizations that were far more centralist than they were democratic.

In addition to the “leaderless” misnomer, there have been a number of skewed characterizations of the current movement in news and social media. There is not rigid ideological agreement among the half dozen or so black-led groups that have powered anti-state-violence work since officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown in Ferguson in August 2014. There is, however, coherence to the debates and a consistent political framework within which these organizers are operating.

For example, while no one would argue that cops should continue to be allowed to kill unarmed civilians with impunity, some of the most savvy young leaders realize that jailing individual cops does not solve all our problems. Moreover, the “one rogue cop” mantra, repeatedly asserted by mainstream media, betrays the deeper analysis that many movement leaders share, which is that the problem is wider and systemic.

Beyond Police Violence

Not only do the black-led anti-racist, anti–state violence activists define systemic problems in US law enforcement, they see problems in the laws themselves, especially those that have created our current economic crisis of joblessness, underemployment, and the obscene concentration wealth at the top.

The choice of some of these organizers to link anti-police violence to the “Fight for 15” labor movement for a $15 minimum wage is brilliant because it foregrounds the economic grievances at the core of black anger, from Ferguson to New York to Baltimore. As the title of one news article proclaimed and a study by the Brookings Institute documents, the Ferguson uprising was “a story of black poverty and white supremacy.”

Let’s remember also that Eric Garner was harassed and then killed by Staten Island police because of his participation in the informal economy. His crime was selling single cigarettes, a retail enterprise crafted to secure a very modest margin of profit for the struggling father of four.

Underlying the overwhelming majority of police killings of black people is a story of poverty, underemployment, illegal economic activity, class vulnerability, and struggling communities. When protest leaders have chanted “black lives matter,” the real power in their collective voice is that they are insisting that the lives of the Mike Browns and Eric Garners of the world matter, as distinct from the better protected and less vulnerable black political and commercial elites.

If we listen closely, the message of some of the sharpest leaders of this generation reflects not only a class and racial analysis but an intersectional gender analysis as well. On May 21 several groups called for a National Day of Action to End State Violence Against Black Women and Girls to counter the erroneous notion that only black males are victims of police and state violence.

And in the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing, black feminist organizers actively supported the protests around Martin while simultaneously spearheading a defense campaign to draw attention to the case of Marissa Alexander. Project NIA in Chicago and the Crunk Feminist Collective were two important sites for this effort.

More recently activists have publicized and rallied around the case of Rekia Boyd, a young unarmed Chicago woman killed by an off-duty police officer. The black feminist analysis that undergirds these campaigns and is articulated by organizers such as Charlene Carruthers, Angie Rollins, Brittney Cooper, Jasson Perez, and others stands in defiant opposition to the biased logic of male-centered programs and to the reactionary and ill-informed pronouncements of Fox News’s Juan Williams, who sought to link the Baltimore protests to the supposed breakdown of the patriarchal black family.

If one is paying attention, one knows the myriad of problems that oppressed people, specifically poor black folk, are experiencing every day. Solutions, however, are harder to come by.

When we chant “We want our freedom!” that demand can mean many different things, especially as demonstrations become bigger and more diverse. That is why the title of Jay Kang’s New York Times Magazine article — “Our Demand is Simple: Stop Killing Us” — is so problematic. The demands organizations including BYP100, Dream Defenders, Justice League, Black Lives Matter, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, We Charge Genocide, Critical Resistance, BlackOUT Collective, Ferguson Action, Organization for Black Struggle, and Hands Up United are making are not simple at all.

Organizers who are grounded in collective work know that we could indeed witness a reduction in police killings but still feel repression, poverty. and violence in so many other ways. People are demanding jobs with a living wage, more funding for schools, access to college, social programs, food justice, and a reversal of the multilayered process of mass incarceration. Moreover, the newer organizations are in advance of previous movements by including the language of anti-sexism and anti-hetero-patriarchy in their political statements and, in some cases, their mission statements.

Some young activists are visionary abolitionists who want to push for a society without prisons. So while reducing and eliminating police killings of black civilians is certainly a goal, freedom has a much higher bar. As Dream Defenders organizer Phillip Agnew puts it, “This is part of a progression of resistance to economic systems and social systems that stamp out people who are black, brown, oppressed [and] poor.”


While problems confronting black youth in the era of neoliberalism and postindustrial cities are complicated, they are not undecipherable.

The postindustrial era and the age of global neoliberal policies means cities and neighborhoods have been abandoned. Some of the areas where police have recently killed black civilians are reeling from more than 30 percent unemployment. They’re challenged by a booming underground economy that puts participants and bystanders at greater risk of being jailed or killed.

In Chicago’s North Lawndale, in West Baltimore, or almost any neighborhood in my hometown of Detroit, there simply are no jobs and no real grocery stores. There is dilapidated and abandoned housing and dramatically dwindling services. The one problem, from a crude capitalist standpoint, is that there are still people in these post-economic areas, but their labor is no longer needed in the steel mills, factories, or private homes. These superfluous, redundant bodies are the dilemma of twenty-first-century racial capitalism.

As Barbara Ehrenreich writes in her recent review of Martin Ford’s new book, “Rise of the Robots,” “[T]here should be no doubt that technology is advancing in the direction of full unemployment.” Ford makes this point by quoting a cofounder of a startup dedicated to automating gourmet hamburger production: “Our device isn’t meant to make employees more efficient. It’s meant to completely obviate them.”

So, jobs are being pushed out of neighborhoods, out of the US, and out of existence. Those at the bottom of the economic pyramid, which has been a racialized hierarchy in the US since slavery, are bearing the brunt of this economic trajectory. So I ask, how do we turn it around?

There are answers. It will be a fight. We need multiple tools and tactics. And we need leaders of the Ella Baker variety to make it happen. I am confident that they are on the rise.