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

One of the most important African American leaders of the twentieth century and perhaps the most influential woman in the civil rights movement, Ella Baker (1903-1986) was an activist whose remarkable career spanned fifty years and touched thousands of lives.

A gifted grassroots organizer, Baker shunned the spotlight in favor of vital behind-the-scenes work that helped power the black freedom struggle. She was a national officer and key figure in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and a prime mover in the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Baker made a place for herself in predominantly male political circles that included W. E. B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, and Martin Luther King Jr., all the while maintaining relationships with a vibrant group of women, students, and activists both black and white.

In this deeply researched biography, Barbara Ransby chronicles Baker’s long and rich political career as an organizer, an intellectual, and a teacher, from her early experiences in depression-era Harlem to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Ransby shows Baker to be a complex figure whose radical, democratic worldview, commitment to empowering the black poor, and emphasis on group-centered, grassroots leadership set her apart from most of her political contemporaries. Beyond documenting an extraordinary life, the book paints a vivid picture of the African American fight for justice and its intersections with other progressive struggles worldwide across the twentieth century.

Purchase at uncpress.unc.edu, indiebound.org, or amazon.com


Awards & Distinctions

  • 2004 Lillian Smith Book Award, Southern Regional Council
  • 2003 Joan Kelly Memorial Prize, American Historical Association
  • 2003 Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Prize, Association of Black Women Historians
  • 2004 Liberty Legacy Foundation Award, Organization of American Historians
  • 2004 James A. Rawley Prize, Organization of American Historians
  • Honorable Mention, 2004 Berkshire Conference First Book Prize, Berkshire Conference of Women Historians
  • 2004 Honor Book, Black Caucus of the American Library Association
  • 2004 Outstanding Book Award, Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights in North America


“The definitive biography of one of America’s most important civil rights leaders in the twentieth century.”
–Religious Studies Review

“A critical and useful analysis of the role of this largely unsung heroine of the movement. . . . This well-researched study of the life of Ella Barker will make a valuable contribution to the voluminous literature on the black freedom struggle in the twentieth century.”
–Journal of Southern History

“Ransby, a historian of indisputable talent and skill, provides numerous intricate, heretofore unknown facts and details of Ella Barker’s life while growing up in the South and the path that led her to involvement in civil and human rights efforts. . . . This is a superb book.”

“Among the most vivid [civil rights] movement biographies of recent years.”
–Washington Post Book World

“Ensures that all who wish to know about Baker’s tireless work can find a detailed account in one volume.”
–Black Issues Book Review

“The strength of Ransby’s work is in her detailed accounting of Baker’s political life, accompanied by an analysis of Black struggle in the 20th century.”
–The Crisis