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Vol. 18 (2005 Spring)

Fundi - The Enduring Leadership Legacy of Civil Rights Activist Ella Baker

June 1, 2023


Many Black activists have pronounced Ella Baker the Fundi of the American Civil Rights Movement. Moses and Cobb (2001), veterans of the Mississippi voter registration project from the early 1960s, named her “our Fundi in the tradition of community organizing” (p. 4). Joanne Grant (1981), who later wrote an important biography of Ella Baker’s life, called her film about Baker’s legacy – Fundi: The story of Ella Baker. Fundi is a Swahili word for the person who possesses practical wisdom and is skilled at passing on to new generations the knowledge that the community’s elders regard as most important. The Fundi is a teacher and a learner. The Fundi supports other people in learning the lessons of the elders. The Fundi does not seek credit or fame. She is quietly satisfied to provide a bridge from one generation to the next and to help young people root their ideas and actions in their culture’s most enduring traditions. Throughout her life Ella Baker stepped in again and again to model learning, relationship-building, teaching, and leadership.

Although she devoted her life to upholding the cause of racial justice and gained a reputation among civil rights activists for being a great leader, the name of Ella Jo Baker remains largely unknown to the general public. Born in 1903 in Norfolk, Virginia, Baker was the granddaughter of proud and defiant ex-slaves.  With the support of her parents who made many sacrifices to further their daughter’s education, Baker graduated from North Carolina’s Shaw University as the valedictorian of her 1927 class. Almost immediately after graduation, she left the South for New York City and immersed herself in the excitement of the Harlem Renaissance. It wasn’t long before she was participating actively in a variety of organizations to help people secure their rights and enhance their economic opportunities. All of this led eventually to her assuming a leadership position in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) – the preeminent Black advocacy group in the United States since its founding in 1909. As Director of Branches for the NAACP, Baker was especially effective in maintaining contact with the Association’s grassroots membership and pushed hard for education and training programs to prepare rank and file people from throughout the South for leadership roles. In the 1950s, Baker was the first Executive Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) – the organization that grew out of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and supported Dr. Martin Luther King’s efforts to combat racism. In 1960, she left the SCLC to launch the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) – the group set up to sustain the student protest movement that began so dramatically on February 1, 1960, when four Black students from the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina staged a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in downtown Greensboro to protest racial discrimination.

Throughout all of this work, Baker stressed the value of learning, growth, and the development of grassroots leadership. She saw herself primarily as an adult educator and a cultivator of untapped leadership.  Every cause, in her view, simmered with opportunities for education. Taking the time to think through the issues, to cast off worn out assumptions, and to plan reflectively for the long term mattered most to her. She maintained that social action yielded valuable learning when sufficient time was set aside for reflection and dialogue.