In the fall of 2011, then governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, called for April to be honored as Confederate History Month; the “people of Virginia joined the Confederate States of America in a four-year war between the states for independence.” McDonnell initially failed to mention plantation slavery in his call for honoring confederate soldiers. I, like so many others, were outraged at the audacity and racism of a Confederate History Month. I then began to think more about existing holidays in Virginia, and elsewhere, and how many of those holidays were in honor of people of color and women. To date, that answer is still very few.
My answer to this problem was starting the campaign to create a holiday in honor of Ella Baker. Ella Josephine Baker, born in Virginia on December 13, 1903, was a remarkable activist. Although many have never even heard of her, she is often referred to as the mother of the Civil Rights Movement. She collaborated with numerous notable organizations including the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She is perhaps most well known for her work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, more commonly known as SNCC (pronounced Snick). In April of 1960, Baker coordinated a gathering of student activists at Shaw University in order to discuss strategies on how to move forward with movement organizing – the result of those conversations was the creation of SNCC. This organization was perhaps one of the most successful of the Civil Rights Movement with activist campaigns including sit-ins, voter registration, and freedom rides. It was also, often through Baker’s mentorship, that this organization bore some of our most outstanding activists such as Julian Bond, Septima Clark, John Lewis, Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), Marian Wright Edelman, Howard Zinn, and so many others. In her guidance and mentorship, Ella Baker was known for cultivating a “participatory democracy” style. Participatory democracy puts the obsession of leadership to the side to focus instead on facilitation, group discussion, and community coordinated efforts. In true fashion, Baker did not seek the spotlight and the microphone (probably one of the reasons she is not more well-known). One of her most famous quotes is “Give people light and they will find a way.” President Biden even chose to use this quote at the beginning of his speech when he accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination in 2020.
Throughout her years Ella Baker continued her activism and was dedicated to a range of liberation efforts. In 1986, Ella Baker passed away on her birthday in her longtime home of Harlem, New York. As time has passed, there has been increasing recognition of Ella Baker’s meaningful legacy. There are many books: Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement by Barbara Ransby; Ella Baker: Community Organizer of the Civil Rights Movement by J. Todd Moye; Ella Baker: Freedom Bound by Joanne Grant; Ella Baker’s Catalytic Leadership by Patricia S. Parker; and the youth books Lift As You Climb by Patricia Hruby Powell and We Who Believe in Freedom by Lea E. Williams There is also a biopic called Fundi, which is a Swahili word for a person who passes skills from one generation to another. In 2009, the United States Post Office honored her with a postage stamp alongside the activist Ruby Hurley.
In April of 2011, the first Ella Baker Day (EBD) was held on The University of Virginia campus. The event consisted of keynote speaker, Ruby Sales, former SNCC member and Co-Director of The SpiritHouse Project. Since then, Ella Baker Day has been celebrated in several other states: North Carolina, Maryland, New York, South Carolina, and Washington. In North Carolina, an organization has been created to honor Ella Baker and her home roots in the state, as this is where she grew up; see Ella Baker Educational Project of NC. A common practice of an EBD celebration is to choose a theme and coordinate speakers and events around that theme. For example, past themes have included incarceration, voting, and art and activism. Keynote speakers are usually women of color who are grassroots organizers and follow and/or reflect Baker’s philosophies and tenets. Examples of past speakers are Rose Clemente, Bree Newsome, Patricia Parker, Kenrya Rankin, and Akiba Solomon. Other communities have celebrated Ella Baker Day through various kinds of activities such as a community garden day, poetry slams, and a volunteer day. Communities can choose best how to celebrate Ella Baker Day based on their needs and resources – what’s important is spreading the knowledge about Ella Baker, carrying on her legacy of community uplift and resistance to oppression, and supporting each other in meaningful exchange. The suggested day for Ella Baker Day is April 15 or April 16 because these days mark the weekend that SNCC came into fruition.
Ella Baker was known for her sincere belief in the potential and dignity of every individual. A day in honor of Ella Baker would bring much needed acknowledgement to the ongoing value of community organizing and roles that women and people of color have played in the creation of this nation. Currently, there are suggested proclamations (see one below for example) for a federal holiday and for Maryland, South Carolina, and New York. Any of these proclamations can easily be modified to cater a proclamation statement for your state (if one does not yet exist). We’ve also already had some important recognition and support from state officials. In 2018, governor of North Carolina Roy Cooper wrote a proclamation of April 15th, 2018, as Ella Baker Day. In New York, proclamations and statements of support have been issued by Westchester County Executive George Latimer, New York Senator Adriano Espaillat, and Speaker of the New York City Council Adrienne Adams.
Every year the message of Ella Baker Day spreads a little a farther, and we hope that your community will begin its own tradition of celebrating EBD. To help with this process, there is a folder on the campaign’s website with helpful files such as logos, flyers, stickers, and other event day information. You can also see pictures of past events on the campaign website. If you want to discuss the possibility of hosting an EBD and/or want your EBD event information posted on the campaign website, please email info[at]SupportEllaBakerDay.com We hope to see details on your Ella Baker Day soon!
New York State Proposed Proclamation
WHEREAS, Ms. Ella Jo Baker, 1903-1986, lived much of her life in Harlem and served both this great nation and New York City as a leader, educator, and activist on behalf of underprivileged communities; and
WHEREAS, Baker was the granddaughter of enslaved Africans; and
WHEREAS, Baker strongly advocated that the common (wo)man, not solely recognized leaders, are the backbone of this country; and
WHEREAS, Baker is a model for working across party lines and ideological differences to build strong, effective coalitions; and
WHEREAS, Baker dedicated her life to serving those less fortunate by participating in a broad base of organizations including but not limited to the American Federation of Labor, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the New York Public Library, the Parents in Education Against Educational Discrimination, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Voter Education Project; and
WHEREAS, the United States Postal Service honored Baker with a postage stamp as part of a special issue commemorating Civil Rights Pioneers; and
WHEREAS, numerous historical and other scholarly texts have documented Baker's lifelong participation in social movements; and
WHEREAS, it is fitting to recognize Ms. Ella Jo Baker as one of our nation’s greatest unsung heroes, as loved and appreciated by all those who had the opportunity to work alongside her, as an eternal believer in the potential, dignity, and importance of all people, and as an honorable and dedicated citizen; and
WHEREAS, April 16th marks the weekend that Ella Baker helped the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) come to fruition;
NOW, THEREFORE, we, the residents of New York City, do suggest the recognition of April 16 as Ella Baker Day in New York City and call the attention of all our citizens.
hephzibah v. strmic-pawl (2023). Support Ella Baker Day!. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO). https://geo.coop/articles/support-ella-baker-day