This biography in free verse tells the story of Ella Baker, born on December 13, 1903. Growing up in North Carolina, her family gave her a lot to think about. Her grandmother told Ella stories about life in slavery, and especially how she focused on freedom in her mind, even though her body was not free. Ella’s mother often said to her, “Lift as you climb.” Her grandfather, a preacher, would always ask her and the members of his congregation, “What do you hope to accomplish?” Ella was influenced by all of them.
Ella attended Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, and as a student she challenged school policies that she thought were unfair. After graduating in 1927 as class valedictorian, she moved to New York City and began joining social activist organizations, working for black economic power and women’s rights.
The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, founded to build on Ella’s legacy to inspire and guide leaders who will fight injustice, relates:
“She was committed to economic justice for all people and once said, ‘People cannot be free until there is enough work in this land to give everybody a job.’”
When Ella counseled people she would ask them, just as her grandfather had, “What do you hope to accomplish?” Often she would hear by way of reply that they wanted justice, they wanted the vote, and they wanted to be treated like citizens. Then she gave them advice on how to go about achieving these goals. As the author writes, “She wanted people to solve their own problems like her mother taught her – lifting as she climbed.”
Ella began her involvement with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1940. She started as a field secretary and then served as director of branches from 1943 until 1946.
In 1957, she moved to Atlanta to help organize Martin Luther King’s new organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She also ran a voter registration campaign called the Crusade for Citizenship.
Perhaps the work she did with the most impact was helping students form and operate the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). As the Ella Baker Center recounts:
“She wanted to assist the new student activists because she viewed young, emerging activists as a resource and an asset to the movement. Miss Baker organized a meeting at Shaw University for the student leaders of the sit-ins in April 1960. From that meeting, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — SNCC — was born.”
Under her guidance, SNCC became one of the foremost advocates for human rights in the country.
In one of the quotes the author includes in the text, Ella exclaimed:
“We are not fighting for the freedom of the Negro alone, but for the freedom of the human spirit.”
“The struggle for rights didn’t start yesterday and has to continue until it is won.”
The author ends with Ella asking, “What do you hope to accomplish?”
Ella continued to be a respected and influential leader in the fight for human and civil rights until her death on December 13, 1986, on her 83rd birthday.
Back matter includes an Author’s Note with more background about Ella, a glossary, timeline, bibliography, and a guide to interviews and oral histories.
The illustrator, R. Gregory Christie, has won multiple awards for his work, including the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Award and the NAACP’s Image award. The pictures in this book alternate between realist and impressionistic, using vivid colors for bright backgrounds, and deftly conveying a range of emotions.
Evaluation: Like many women, Ella Baker worked largely behind the scenes, with men gaining recognition for much of the accomplishments she helped achieve. As observed in a review of Professor Barbara Ransby’s book, Ella Baker & The Black Freedom Movement:
“Before we continue to heap a single praise or Hosanna to men like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Wyatt T. Walker, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, Paul Robeson, Thurgood Marshall, W.E.B. Du Bois, or any of these other gentlemen we idolize as embodiments of masculine heroism, we should know about one woman, of many, who had more wisdom, courage, and vision then almost all of them: Ms. Ella Baker.”
This book will introduce readers (recommended for ages 5 and up) to “a woman whose sheer skill, leadership, and ability to mobilize the marginalized and dispossessed to full participation in their fight for human dignity is almost unprecedented in American history.”
Published by Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, 2020