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Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision: Discussion Guide

While this book is primarily a biography of black rights activist Ella Baker, it contains a wealth of
information on the organizations she was involved in. Baker was instrumental in shaping the
"black freedom movement" for several decades, beginning in the 30s. She played an invaluable
role in strengthening and defining the NAACP, King's Southern Christian Leadership
Conference, as well as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She cut her
teeth as a young organizer in Harlem, but as the civil rights movement gained momentum she
relocated to the South and joined the struggle for desegregation. These two selected chapters
document Baker's role in the formation and rise of SNCC between 1960-1964.

Chapter 8, "Mentoring a New Generation of Activists: The Birth of the Student Non-Violent
Coordinating Committee, 1960-1961" covers the emergence of SNCC out of the sit-in
movement and Baker's role in molding the organization. It also outlines some of the key
organizational and strategic question that SNCC founders struggled with.

Discussion Questions:

Why was it important for youth and students engaged in civil rights work to operate somewhat
independently of the NAACP and SCLC? What does SNCC's experience teach us about how
student activists should organize themselves and relate to other struggles in the current period?

On pp. 268-269, Ransby argues that internal disputes over electoral politics and how to orient
towards the Democratic Party threatened to tear SNCC apart. As the left continues to grapple
with these questions today, what lessons can be drawn from how SNCC confronted such these

What can Ella Baker's mentorship of younger activists, such as Bob Moses and Dianne Nash,
teach us about the struggle to build an inter-generational movement? How can more
experienced radicals impart their skills to younger activists, while still allowing youth to take the
lead in organizing themselves?

On p. 252, Ransby notes that Baker encouraged SNCC to spill out from the campuses and build
alliances with anti-racist movements in the community at large. How did SNCC balance the
tasks of both building itself as an organization as well as strengthening broader social
movements in its formative years?

Chapter 9, "The Empowerment of an Indigenous Southern Black Leadership, 1961-1964",

covers SNCC's growth from a campus-based group into an organization active in numerous
communities across the South. Ransby documents SNCC's ambitious campaigns during this
period, such as its role in the tenant farmer's struggle in Fayette County, Tennessee.

Discussion Questions:
Do you think SNCC activists tried to assert too much control over the tenant farmer's struggle in
Fayette County? In what ways can outside activists avoid exercising too much authority over
people in local struggles and what positive support roles can they fulfill instead?

How did Baker and SNCC's organizational approach, tactics, and overall strategy differ from
those of King and the SCLC? Specifically, how did SNCC and SCLC diverge in regards to
working within the legal system and other established institutions?

In what ways did Ella Baker exert informal leadership within SNCC? What are some of the
potential problems of informal leadership and how can we hold people in positions of
accountable in our own movements and organizations?

How did the patriarchy of broader society influence the organizational culture of SNCC? In your
own experience, how does gender continue to undermine work in social movements and

Ransby illustrates that the drive towards "red-baiting" within SNCC and other organizations was
largely prompted by fears of losing grant and foundational money. How can over-dependence
on institutional sources of funding compromise a movement or organization's goals and values?