This is the second in a series of profiles on lesser-known but important African-Americans commemorating Black History Month.

Ella Baker (1903-1986) shunned the spotlight, and that’s probably why she isn’t as well-known as her contemporaries in the civil rights movement. But her work behind the scenes was critical to the movement’s success.

Through her work with the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and numerous other organizations, Baker exhibited a combination of feminism, compassion for the less fortunate and an unquenchable desire to end injustice while fighting for social causes for more than five decades.

Baker’s work began in earnest during the Great Depression, when she became the first national director of the Young Negroes Cooperative League, a group that fought for rights in schools and in the workplace. In 1937, she became an assistant project director for the federal Works Progress Administration, teaching job skills to the poor.

She became active with the NAACP during the 1940s, developing important contacts that would be put to good use in the years to come — such as when the organization decided to file a lawsuit on behalf of a seamstress named Rosa Parks who was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Ala., bus.

Baker helped organize and raise funds for the now-historic bus boycott that followed, and when a young Martin Luther King Jr. used the boycott as the impetus to form the SCLC with fellow ministers two years later, she became its first executive director. The SCLC would become the driving force behind the civil rights movement throughout the 1950s and ’60s.

But Baker’s greatest personal achievement was when she resigned from the SCLC in 1960 to serve as adult adviser for a group of young college students who had staged sit-ins at white-only lunch counters across America. Baker viewed the young people as the torchbearers for the movement and helped them form SNCC, the first organized student-activist movement in American history and the inspiration for everything from the Vietnam War protests to the fight for gay rights.

Baker continued her work through the 1970s, traveling the country to raise awareness for social causes such as women’s rights and prison reform. And she didn’t stop until poor health forced her hand.

Shortly before her death, Baker explained her life’s philosophy in an interview for Essence magazine: if you want change, you have to get involved.

“You had to break through things to get what you wanted,” she said. “You didn’t just sit up there and think about it; it had to happen.”

Deputy Managing Editor Rod Harmon may be contacted at 791-6450 or at:

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