Annual Ella Baker Day Symposium at U.Va. Celebrates 'Mother of Civil Rights Movement'

April 2, 2012 — A list of the titans of the Civil Rights Movement includes Thurgood Marshall, A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King Jr. But that list should include Ella Baker, an unsung heroine of the movement who worked closely, but quietly, with those titans over her long career.

The University of Virginia Women's Center will host its second annual Ella Baker Day Symposium in the Dome Room of the Rotunda on April 6 from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with a reception following from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. in the Great Hall of Garrett Hall.

The event is intended to spark conversations about the legacy of Ella Baker and her dedication to social justice in today's atmosphere of economic uncertainty, disputes over labor and wealth inequality, debates over women's rights and continuing concerns about race relations, particularly in light of the recent shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old, said event organizer Hephzibah Strmic-Pawl, a U.Va. doctoral student in sociology in the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences and a leader of an ongoing effort to establish an annual Ella Baker Day each April 15 in Virginia to honor the native daughter.

"This symposium works to build dialogue about current challenges we are facing, coalition building and participatory democracy," Strmic-Pawl said. "It is also a day to highlight the dignity and worth of the lives of all Virginians, including those who have been underrepresented and oppressed."

Symposium events will include two panel discussions, a performance by the Black Voices Gospel Choir, presentation of the Ella Baker Social Justice Award and a screening of the award-winning documentary film, "Fundi: The Story of Ella Baker." (Full details.)

The keynote address will be presented by Margaret Huang, executive director of the Rights Working Group, which engages in conversations about racial profiling, educates policymakers and mobilizes human rights organizations.

Gary Flowers, a 1985 graduate of the College of Arts & Sciences, will deliver the closing keynote. He is executive director and CEO of the Black Leadership Forum, an alliance of national African-American civil rights and service organizations.

Ella Josephine Baker's half-century of activism stretched from the Harlem Renaissance of the late 1920s through the 1970s. Known for her belief in the potential and dignity of every individual, and for linking criticisms of racism and gender discrimination to criticisms of capitalism and social imperialism, she worked closely, but mostly behind the scenes, with nearly every major civil rights leader and mentored many younger leaders, including Julian Bond, Diane Nash, Bob Moses and Stokely Carmichael. Carmichael later concluded, "The most powerful person in the struggle of the '60s was Miss Ella Baker, not Martin Luther King."

Recognized by many as a mother of the Civil Rights Movement, Baker was a senior leader in two of the movement's most influential organizations: the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Baker was born Dec. 13, 1903, in Norfolk, and died in 1986 on her 83rd birthday.

The 2012 Ella Baker Day Symposium is co-sponsored by the following U.Va. organizations: The Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies, the Curry School of Education, the LGBT Resource Center, the Office of Diversity and Equity, the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost,the Office of the Vice President for Research, the Studies in Women and Gender program, and University and Community Action for Racial Equity.

— by Brevy Cannon