Ella Baker and the Limits of Charismatic Masculinity

by Pascal Robert

Ella Baker, the consummate organizer, “was very critical of the hot shot Black preachers who would seem to mesmerize their audience with soaring oratory, then leave and expect others to implement an agenda.” She put forward a grassroots critique of overwhelmingly male Black leadership, and showed “more wisdom, courage, and vision then almost all of them.”

Ella Baker and the Limits of Charismatic Masculinity

by Pascal Robert

This article originally appeared on Mr. Robert’s website, Thought Merchant.

She believed in giving people the power to choose their direction and make demands.”

In perhaps one of the most important biographies of a civil rights leader published, Professor Barbara Ransby has conveyed the epic life and struggle of 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. In her book, Ella Baker & The Black Freedom Movement, Professor Ransby documents the life of Ella Baker, a Black woman born to a middle class family in North Carolina in 1903 who, after witnessing the staunch spiritually based dedication of her mother to serving the poor in the South, transforms into a sheer force of will that worked with all the major civil rights organizations of her time, and helped mobilize to create two of the most crucial to the Civil Rights Movement: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Before we continue to heap praise or Hosannas on men like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Wyatt T. Walker, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, Paul Robeson, Thurgood Marshall, W.E.B. DuBois, 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.

Baker believed in empowering the most common person, whether a sharecropper, teenager, or illiterate vagrant with skills to make demands on the political establishment.”

What made Baker’s method of organizing both effective and revolutionary is that it completely dismissed the traditional paradigm of leadership that had plagued the Black community from its earliest history in North America, stemming mostly from the Black Church: charismatic masculine leadership based on oratory and exhibitionism. Baker believed in empowering the most common person, whether a sharecropper, teenager, or illiterate vagrant with skills to make demands on the political establishment. Baker believed that people did not need fancy leaders with degrees and pedigree to tell them what was best for them. She believed in giving people the power to choose their direction and make demands, and put pressure on institutions without depending on big shots with fancy suits. In her book Professor Ransby notes:

At every opportunity [Ella] Baker reiterated the radical idea that educated elites were not the natural leaders of Black people. Critically reflecting on her work with the NAACP, she observed, “The Leadership was all from the professional class, basically. I think these are the factors that have kept it [the NAACP] from moving to a more militant position.”

Moreover, Ella Baker was very critical of the hot shot Black preachers who would seem to mesmerize their audience with soaring oratory then leave and expect others to implement an agenda. As Ransby further notes at one point Ella Baker asked Dr. King directly “…why he allowed such hero worship, and he responded simply, that it was what people wanted. This answer did not satisfy Baker in the least.”

Ella Baker did not mince words on her thoughts of Dr. King’s leadership style and vocally spoke out on its limitations:

Baker described [Dr. King] as a pampered member of Atlanta’s black elite who had the mantle of leadership handed to him rather than having had to earn it, a member of a coddled ‘silver spoon brigade.’ He wore silk suits and spoke with a silver tongue.

...In Baker’s eyes King did not identify enough with the people he sought to lead. He did not situate himself among them but remained above them.

“…Baker felt the focus on King drained the masses of confidence in themselves. People often marveled at the things King could do that they could not; his eloquent speeches overwhelmed as well as inspired.”

Obama has been as anemic in delivering real change and effective at stifling progress as Ella Baker worried Dr. King would have been.”

The limitations of this charismatic masculinity noted by Ella Baker are profound, particularly in today’s political age when we have a president like Barack Obama who often tries to channel the traditions of charismatic leadership and oratory from the Black tradition. Ironically, Obama has been as anemic in delivering real change and effective at stifling progress as Ella Baker worried Dr. King would have been. So perhaps in a strange twist, we have found a similarity between King and Obama after all.

Often in America, when discussing prominent Black trailblazers who fought the injustices of segregation and racial oppression, we see the same images of a variety of men. I somewhat jokingly call them our superhero black male icons. This phenomenon mimics the more noxious western patriarchal fascination with viewing history as a series of events being shaped and guided by the hands of a strong capable man embodying all our fantasies about leadership, masculinity, and sometimes fatherhood.

The danger of such imagery is that it often both obscures and denies the scope of nuanced factors, issues, and circumstances in shaping the events from which our societies were born. Furthermore, such narratives often exclude any consideration of female agency in effecting the great events that have transpired over time.

Barbara Ransby should be applauded for putting a halt to this tradition and setting the record straight with her towering biography Ella Baker & The Black Freedom Movement. As a man still troubled with patriarchal sexist notions, this book opened my eyes to ways in which the roles of women are often neglected and intentionally obscured. Let us all read the story of Ella Baker and make sure such injustices do not continue.

Pascal Robert is an Iconoclastic Haitian American Lawyer, Blogger, and Online Activist for Haiti. For years his work appeared under the Blog Thought Merchant: http://thoughtmerchant.wordpress.com/ You can also find his work on the Huffington Post here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/pascal-robert/ He can be reached via twitter at: https://twitter.com/probert06 @probert06 or [email protected]


Enjoying your contributions Pascal

I'm really enjoying your contributions Pascal. This one and last week's "Failure of Black Leadership", really captured a feeling that's been growing in me for a long time. Namely that the glorification of black leaders is intended to work the same way as "black first" and "exceptional negro", worship. As a way to convince the masses that leadership can only come from the aristocratic class ie, people with special gifts talents or training that most of us don't have and can't get.

I've frequently found myself silenced by those who espouse "leadership comes from the top" mantras, unable to find support for my view that it doesn't have to be so. 

However, lately I'm finding it doesn't take much to convince other blacks that it's a mistake to place our salvation in the hands of individuals. I think this partly due to the so called black leadership class' total failure to mobilize the mass of blacks to take action on any of the leading issues confronting blacks in the 21st century, and also an awareness of how black political movements of the past were effectiely neutralized with the assasination of the leadership.

Too often our bids for political empowerment become nothing more than media jousting matches between a self appointed black spokesman and white reporters. He gets all the attention, credit and kudos, while those who do the actual work languish in obscurity behind the scenes.  

What need are blacks who will just do the work- 


Learning as we go along, and avoiding all media attention except where we can be confident of making media work for us.

I wanna see more of your work. 


Thank you Black Agenda Report, this place is like a fill up station for me after I've been drained battling the black on black infighting that is rampant on the internet.

BAR is one of few the corners of the online black community where black people still seem to give a damn about black people and real concerns.  

Please know that the important work you're doing here is reaching many of us and we are learning and growing from it.  


Thank you Mr. Robert.

I met Dr Cornel West in the mid-eighties at my local Church.  He always mentions Ella Baker and I never knew much about her until your article.  I will get the book.

You can see the "fire in her bones".

Maybe I need to read up on her more.

Because none of the Ella Baker quotes provided above supports white neo-liberalism and the CIA's form of feminism, which promotes the hatred of black male population growth, black fatherhood, black male organization, black male activism, and ultimately ---> black male VIOLENCE/AGGRESSION!

What do you think the Willie Lynch program, the lynch mobs, the black code laws, the eugenics programs, the economic/chemical warfare, the prisons, and the counterintel/insurgency programs were all aimed at? THE BLACK MAN's BALLS! That's who!

I'm sure neo-liberals would rather deal with accommodating, compromising, naïve, pushover governments in Iran, Russia, China, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Cuba etc.

Willie Lynch Goes Global: They just kill off, lock up, impoverish and demoralize the aggressive males, then put IMF prostitutes in charge.

Look at the IMF puppet Joyce Banda of Malawi. She's currently cracking down on a youth protest for higher pay:


Look at the IMF puppet Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia.

Look at the IMF puppet Okonjo-Iweala, the so-called "Iron Lady" of Nigeria:


She cut the fuel subsidies under direct orders from Madame Lagarde of the IMF. The impoverished Nigerian women & children depend on this subsidy.

Look at Susan & Condi Rice.

[NOTE: This article right here that I'm about to post should be renamed "Too Many Wild Nigger's Runnin Around for us White Folks to Bare"]

"Mali's 2.5 Percent Problem"

The real reason the Sahel is awash with terrorists? Rapid population growth.



As they debate how to tackle the threat of insurgency and unrest in Africa, Western leaders could do worse than to consider one of the most important, yet curiously underplayed, aspects of that troubled region -- the dangers of rapid, unchecked population growth.

It is no coincidence that in recent decades Mali's population has been growing at an unsustainable annual rate of around 3 percent. In other words, the average Malian woman has six children, while the country's population has tripled over the past 50 years and, according to the latest U.N. estimates, is set to triple again over the next half century.

Such a drastic rate of population growth rate has profound implications. In particular it means that, in an undeveloped and largely barren land, too many people are competing for too few local resources and opportunities.

Young men have limited hopes of finding employment or even sustenance and are therefore deeply susceptible to the temptation of armed criminality and insurgency, and to the lure of radical preachers who seem to offer them both a sense of purpose and scapegoats who they can blame for their woes.

This cultural taboo partly reflects the racial sensibilities that the issue of population growth has sometimes offended in the postwar -- and post-imperial -- age. In the developing world, many critics have viewed family-planning initiatives as an attempt by the white former colonial powers to control a perceived threat from beyond. And in Western capitals, the issue is still sometimes unfairly equated with eugenics, creating an effective no-go area for all but the bravest politicians.

It is just such sensitivities that now need to be challenged. The taboo that continues to surround the issue of population control needs to be cast aside. New, and highly drastic, means of curbing the rate of growth have to be devised and put into practice if this dire threat to regional and international stability is ever to be averted.

In Mali, population growth has -- at the very least -- already seriously aggravated existing tensions. Around 3 million ordinary Malians cannot at present feed themselves, and about 175,000 children face death from severe acute malnutrition, a number that the U.N. and various NGOs feel is set to increase sharply in the near future. The longer the outside world looks away from this crisis, the more tragic the consequences of such a failure will be.

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