Ella Baker was born in 1903 in Virginia. She grew up in North Carolina and in 1927 graduated as the class valedictorian from Shaw University. She then moved to New York City and became active in several social justice organizations, including the Young Negroes Cooperative League, which focused on developing black economic power, for whom she became the national director. She also worked for the Works Progress Administration.
In the late 1930s, Baker became involved in the NAACP, first as a field secretary, then as a branch director. Though she left the NAACP staff in 1946, Baker remained an active volunteer, eventually becoming the president of the New York NAACP branch in 1952. During this time, she led the fight for school desegregation in New York City.
In 1957, Baker returned to the South, moving to Atlanta in order to help organize Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Though her focus was more grassroots than that of the SCLC, Baker stayed on for two years. She also organized voter registrations for African-Americans during this time period.
After leaving the SCLC, Baker went on to become a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960. Significantly older than most SNCC members, Baker served as a "quiet leader" and mentor to the younger activists with whom she worked. She was also a major organizer of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964.
Baker returned to New York in the mid-1960s, where she continued to work as an organizer. She died in 1986. She is perhaps best remembered in Sweet Honey in the Rock's "Ella's Song," which states that "we who believe in freedom cannot rest."