Last week was Ella Baker Day in Littleton. This one-stoplight town in Halifax County, 70 miles from Raleigh, was the childhood home of that extraordinary African-American woman who became one of the most important civil rights activists in U.S. history. I wish you all could have been there. Her hometown’s first celebration in her honor was the kind of event that made me proud to be from North Carolina.
The day began at the Lakeland Cultural Arts Center, where town leaders read a proclamation making every April 15 a day to honor Ella Baker and her role in America’s civil rights struggle. The Halifax County commissioners had passed a similar resolution a few days earlier. The proclamation extolled Baker for her “exemplary commitment and dedication throughout her life to the causes of civil rights and social justice.”
The town’s proclamation made special mention of Baker’s pivotal role in the founding of one of America’s most important civil rights groups. After the Greensboro sit-ins in 1960, student leaders gathered at Shaw University in Raleigh and founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Baker was SNCC’s godmother and the young activists’ most trusted counselor. Those young people became the “shock troops” of the civil rights movement, often risking their lives to end Jim Crow and gain voting rights for all Americans.
The celebration moved to the Littleton Community Center. The crowd included young and old, locals and visitors from as far away as Philadelphia and New York City. Middle school students had made a wonderful exhibit on Baker’s life, and local community groups that shared her vision of caring for the least among us were there, too.
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Ella Baker’s niece, Carolyn Brockington, was among the honored guests. She told the gathering that her aunt had wanted to be a physician, but that was not possible for a black woman at that time, even though she was valedictorian of her class at Shaw University in 1927. “You can do what I wanted to do,” Baker told her. Today Brockington is a vascular neurologist at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City.
Brockington said her aunt taught her many lessons. One of the most important was the power of listening and finding the strength in others. “She planted seeds,” she said of her aunt. “This Little Light of Mine” was one of Baker’s favorite hymns, and she believed that light existed in every man, woman and child, if only one would nurture it.
Brockington also recalled how humble her aunt was about her role in the civil rights movement. When you see injustice, Baker taught her, “You have to take a stand.” In the 1940s and ’50s, when Baker was organizing for civil rights in the small towns and rural byways of the South, she lived in constant danger. But she never backed down. “How could I stand by and not do something about the injustice I saw?” she asked her niece.
As Brockington spoke, the hometown people were bursting with pride. Everybody I met in Littleton shared that enthusiasm for Baker and her legacy – and why not? They all know Elam, the little community where Baker’s grandparents had risen out of slavery. And from the age of 7, Baker lived on East End Avenue and worshiped at Roanoke Chapel Baptist Church.
Another speaker, Dr. Florine Bell, was also deeply moving. During a panel discussion that afternoon, she talked about Baker’s roots in Littleton. She described how Baker came from a long line of strong, devout women, including a teacher-mother who was known throughout the community for her wisdom and leadership.
Bell said Baker had been buried far from Halifax County, in New York City, in 1986. Like many Littleton residents, Bell had not known about Baker’s accomplishments when she was growing up there. She first learned about Baker in a history class at N.C. State. “Today I feel like Ella Baker has finally come home to rest,” she said, tears in her eyes.
As one of the event’s organizers, Bell seemed joyfully overwhelmed at the size of the crowd and its enthusiasm for Baker’s half-century of grassroots organizing. At times she could barely speak for her happiness. And the day’s activities were just a beginning. That evening high school students would read poems they had written to honor Baker. A play, written by Garrett Davis, who hails from Littleton, would also be performed at the civic center in Weldon.
Another speaker, Dr. Lenora Taitt-Magubane, had grown close to Ella Baker when Baker was a YWCA activist and freedom rider in the Deep South in the 1960s. Baker had been an important mentor to her, as Baker had been to so many other young civil rights activists. “We considered her the mother of the movement,” Taitt-Magubane told us.
Like Baker’s niece, Taitt-Magubane emphasized how Baker empowered the people around her. “She never told you the answer to a problem. She asked questions,” Taitt-Magubane recalled. Baker encouraged the young activists to think for themselves and chart their own paths. She did not want them to defer to anyone, not to her and not even to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “Strong people do not need strong leaders,” Baker often told her.
It was a lovely and unforgettable day in Littleton. I hope the Ella Baker Day’s organizers know how much it meant to me and to so many others. So often these days, it feels as if we do not have much to be proud of here in North Carolina. Anybody who follows the news knows that we seem to have lost touch with our better selves.
You could not feel that way at Ella Baker Day. In Baker’s life, and in the extraordinary efforts of Littleton and Halifax County to honor her, I rediscovered a side of our state’s history that has been easy to forget lately: our proud tradition of reaching out to our neighbors, believing in our young people, fighting injustice and bigotry, and honoring that spirit of freedom that is in all of us.
Thank you, Littleton. Thank you, Halifax County. Thank you, Ella Baker.
Historian David Cecelski’s most recent book is “The Fire of Freedom: Abraham Galloway and the Slaves’ Civil War.”