Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Women in the Black Freedom Struggle

In this blog entry, I seek to contextualize female leadership during the civil rights movement. It is needless to say that, of course, the civil rights movement’s main goal was to achieve racial equality. During this process, however, patriarchal hierarchies were prevalent in most organizations fighting for racial equality. While the majority of leadership figures were male, there were also women with highly influential roles during the civil rights movement. The female leadership exercised by Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer will be under scrutiny for the purpose of this blog entry.

Portrait of Ella Baker. Source: Kai Lee n.pag

Ella Baker, born in 1903 in Virginia, was an activist who worked in numerous organizations for the cause of the civil rights movement. In terms of leadership, her role at the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) was of great importance. She was hired as the first permanent staff member, in order to organize the Crusade for Citizenship in 1958. For the lack of a better candidate, she became the executive director of SCLC. However, she was not satisfied with the organizational structures within the SCLC. According to Barbara Ransby, Baker regarded the SCLC as “an extension of the church, [thus] a patriarchal ethos took over. […] no[n] of the women who had sacrificed so much to ensure the Montgomery bus boycott’s success were invited to play a leadership role in the new organization” (175-6). Such organizational structures, that made the active participation of women difficult, were highly criticized by Baker.

Historically, Baker is regarded as a grassroots activist. This is of particular importance, when taking into consideration the distinction between grassroots activists and charismatic leaders; while charismatic leaders mobilize the masses for big events, grassroots activists organize communities to gain empowerment (cf Ransby 172). Thus, the leadership role of Ella Baker was carried out in the background. It is debatable whether or not her own opinion on leadership were shaped by her own experiences as a woman. There are many accounts of her complaining for not being taken seriously as a woman. Especially with regard to Martin Luther King Jr, and his not integrating her into his trusted goup of advisors she stated “After all, who was I? I was female, I was old, I didn’t have a PhD” (Ransby 173). This statement demonstrates the difficulties she faced for being a woman within patriarchal structures. The organizational structures within the SCLC did not allow for a woman to take on the role of a charismatic leader.

It was with the rise of the SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), that Ella Baker was able to strive from her full capacities. Her view of leadership was that “the most effective leaders were ones who emerged directly out of struggle” (Ransby 171). Therefore, non hierarchal structures were needed in order to escape gendered power relations. According to Belinda Robnett, the SNCC with its non centralized leadership “empowered women even in the absence of an explicit feminist doctrine” (131). Baker’s understanding of leadership, that “strong movements don’t need strong leaders” (Robnett 132) shaped the organization and functioning of the SNCC. Everyone was allowed to participate.

waveland ella kaer
Ella Baker at a SNCC meeting in Waveland. Source: https://snccdigital.org/people/ella-baker/

Fannie Lou Hamer, born in 1917, was another important figure at the SNCC. She was a central figure in organizing the Mississippi Freedom Summer. It was the organizational structure of SNCC, that allowed for her to take on such a detrimental role, besides her eloquence and determination to serve the cause of equality. As a former sharecropper, she experienced violence not only during her time as a worker, but also after that during her time as an activist. She survived a brutal beating after attempting to register in Winona in 1963 (cf Kai  Lee 151).

AFnnie Lou HAmer
Fannie Lou Hamer at the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964. Source:http://www.amistadresource.org/civil_rights_era/archives/image_archive.html

“Whitihn The SNCC, the combination of an emphasis on grassroots leadership and the decentralization of decision-making created an atmosphere where women could lead as long as the position was untitled” (Robnett 134). The role of women such as Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer in the civil right movement, was that of grassroots activists. Of course, the ideas of today’s feminism are not applicable to that time. However, these women are examples of female leadership and how proper organizational structures allowed for theri voices to be heard.


Kai Lee, Channa “Anger, Memory, and Personal Power: Fannie Lou Hamer and Civil Rights Leadership” Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights – Black Power Movement. Eds Bettye Collier-Thomas and V.P. Franklin. New York: New York UP, 2001. 139-71. Print

Ransby, Barbara. Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2003. Print

Robnett, Belinda “Women in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee: Ideology Organizational Structure and Leadership” Gender and the Civil Rights Movement. Eds. Peter J. Ling and Sharon Monteith. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1999. 131-42. Print



Author: Helene Bittinger


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