By Rev. Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, Ph.D.
Ella Baker chose her own path to effecting positive change.
“I knew from the beginning that as a woman, an older woman, in a group of ministers who are accustomed to having women largely as supporters, there was no place for me to come into a leadership role. The competition wasn’t worth it.”
These are the words Ella Baker spoke regarding her decision to leave the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, SCLC, in 1958. Baker was one of the core founders of this organization. Yet, her male colleagues only recognized her competence and expertise to a limit. The “preacher’s club” selected Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker to replace Baker at the helm. Due to this prevailing patriarchy and what she deemed a focus on “mass rallies and grand exhortations by ministers without follow-up,” Baker left the SCLC. She chose to go her own womanly way.
We make decisions every day. Life’s twenty-four-hour cycle is filled with choices. We contemplate what we will wear. We ponder breakfast selections. Will it be the bagel with cream cheese or a caramel macchiato with soy? Should I watch Mad Men, Scandal, or go to bed early? Do I call or just send a text or email? Our daily lives are replete with routine choices.
However, beyond these commonplace decisions are those personal, communal, and national selections that will have an impact on our lives years from now. There are the determinations that will influence us and generations to come. Just recently, Dr. Steve Perry tweeted: “The most important parenting decision could be where you send your kid to school.” Yes, right now high school seniors are toiling over college choices. A single mother is struggling with whether to take a second job at the expense of time with children. Congress is debating, actually arguing, over whether to extend unemployment benefits to a million or so recipients, many of whom are perhaps sick and tired of getting such assistance and sick and tired of being political fodder.
These are the perpetual decisions that live beyond a minute’s consideration. Such are the sprint-like choices that, in the end, have marathon consequences. While we face mundane decisions on a regular basis, there are instances in life when the opportunity to go right or left, up or down, in or out, will carry us down a road from which there is no return. Choose carefully.
In the book of Deuteronomy, God offers Moses and the children of Israel the choice of “life and prosperity or death and adversity” (30:19). Ironically, God makes the decision for them and admonishes the hearers to cast their lot with life “so that their descendants may live” (v. 19). In other words, what Moses and his followers do at this intersection will influence children whom they will not live to see. The action they take at this fork in the road will set the path for their progeny.
Additionally, the Book of Ecclesiasticus, not Ecclesiastes, upholds the significance of making proper choices. This literature, sometimes referred to as “Sirach,” is a part of the Apocryphal or Deuterocanonical works prevalent in Catholicism. In Sirach or Ecclesiasticus chapter 15, the author makes note of “the power of…free choice” (v. 14), and humanity’s “choice between fire and water” (v. 16). As recorded in Deuteronomy, this book also comments that “before each person are life and death” (v. 17).
Both biblical passages offer contextual relevance in helping us see that some decisions are not mere matters of color, food, or size. Pondering “life or death” choices is just that—will what you do make life better for you and the community or will what I decide possibly bring destruction to me and my neighbor? Any “choice” words spoken in haste can kill my brother’s spirit, but choosing to employ language in love can shape a girl’s self-esteem and give her promise.
Being “pro-choice” in a revisionist way means I am “pro” choosing to do what benefits persons beyond my circle of influence. To be “pro-choice” indicates that our decisions potentially have tentacles stretching to our children’s children and their children. The idea of “pro-choice” avers that the road we take now can provide a rocky route or serve as fertile ground for generations yet born. To be “pro-choice” is to make decisions beyond the horizon, to act for the beloved community.
When Ella Baker decided to leave the SCLC, she did not leave the work of civil rights. In 1960, after witnessing the power of student sit-ins, Baker formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or SNCC (“Snick”). Because of the influence of SNCC, students became the face of the Freedom Rides in 1961. These Freedom Rides, from Washington, D.C. and Nashville down to Alabama, led to Freedom Summer in 1964. In the heat of the day, students led volunteers from across the nation in a massive voter registration drive throughout Mississippi. Subsequently, many students formed the Students for a Democratic Society. Today schools and centers across the country bear witness to the movement Baker initiated.
Ella Baker had a “pro-choice” moment. In that moment, she seized the opportunity and made a decision that would turn the tide of history. She chose to do what far exceeded herself. Although SNCC is no longer a viable entity, and Baked died in 1986, her name, her work, and her spirit thrive.
I dare say that the spirit of this national mobilizer, the fight of this political activist, the labor of this community organizer still gives life to some boy, some girl who could become the next president. Go figure and choose wisely!
Questions to Ponder:
- What decision do you regret making?
- What did you choose to do that impacted someone else’s life?
- What does it mean to be “pro-choice” according to this article?
- What are two lessons we can learn from Ella Baker’s life?
- In ways does the work of Ella Baker, the SCLC, SNCC and other Civil Rights organizations still live today? How has this work been recontextualized?
- Why do you think we are still dealing with “patriarchy” and the “preacher’s club” in 2014?
Baker, Ella. “Developing Community Leadership.” In Black Women in White American: A Documentary History. Edited by Gerda Lerner. New York: Vintage, 1973.
“Ella’s Song” — As sung by Sweet Honey in the Rock
Franklin, Naomi. “Sirach.” In The Africana Bible: Reading Israel’s Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010.
Ross, Rosetta. Witnessing and Testifying: Black Women, Religion and Civil Rights. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: http://www.sncc50thanniversary.org/sncc.html
Videos of Ella Baker—www.youtube.com
Rev. Dr. Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder is an author, minister, and biblical scholar. Dr. Crowder earned a Bachelor of Science degree summa cum laude in Speech Pathology/Audiology from Howard University. She was the Student Commencement Speaker for her college graduation. She received her Master of Divinity degree from United Theological Seminary and earned its Anderson Theology Award.
Dr. Crowder received Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy degrees in Religion (New Testament) from Vanderbilt University. She was a Fund for Theological Education Dissertation Fellow, a Wabash Center for Teaching Fellow and a Louisville Institute Summer Grant recipient. Dr. Crowder has published in The Chalice Introduction to the New Testament, True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, and The African American Lectionary.
Many of Dr. Crowder’s sermons have appeared in the Nashville newspaper, The Tennesseean. Her biweekly blogs can be found on The Huffington Post. She has an upcoming article on New Testament themes in R and B music and recently signed a contract to write a book on womanist ideas of motherhood. Dr. Crowder serves on the Editorial Boards of ON Scripture, a pop culture online commentary, and Feasting on the Gospels, a revised common lectionary commentary series.
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