Featured Philosopher: Robin Zheng


Robin Zheng is an Assistant Professor at Yale-NUS College, Singapore. She received her PhD in Philosophy from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. From 2015 – 2016 she was a Visiting Junior Research Fellow at Newnham College, Cambridge. Her research ranges across ethics, moral psychology, feminist and social philosophy, focusing mainly on issues of moral responsibility and moral criticism (e.g. for implicit bias, structural injustice). She also has interests in philosophy of race and has written on topics such as racialized sexual preferences and race in pornography. She is a member of the APA Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion, as well as the APA Task Force on a Best Practices Scheme.

Working for a Cause: The Political Integrity of Ella Baker

Robin Zheng 

The following is a condensed version of a talk I gave for The Integrity Project: https://integrityproject.org.

Ella Baker, a key leader of several of the most influential organizations of the U.S. Civil Rights movement, remains relatively unknown compared to some of her peers. This may be due in part to the fact that, in her words: “I never worked for an organization but for a cause.”

In numerous ways, Baker was a paragon of what we ordinarily think of as integrity. During her six decades of activism, she was affiliated with more than forty different political organizations (much to the bewilderment of the FBI agents writing her file). Moreover, she underwent considerable personal sacrifice and defied social expectations in order to do this work. As a young middle-class woman with a college degree, it was almost “inevitable” that she should become a teacher (Ransby 2003, p. 62). But according to Baker, “I had seen generations of graduates also go out and teach. And sometimes there had been people who had shown spirit fighting back in school but after they taught they came back and they were nothing. They had no spirit” (Ransby 2003, p. 62). Rather than risk compromising her own fighting spirit, Baker chose to forego a safe and respectable teaching career. Years later, after working a variety of odd and part-time jobs in New York before becoming director of branches of the NAACP, she resigned from the last position with a steady salary, benefits, and long-term security she would ever hold – spending the next forty-one years of her life making ends meet through multiple jobs, borrowed money, and funds from a supportive network (Moye 2013 p. 6, 65).

Her resignation from the NAACP was just one instance of Baker’s lifelong willingness to challenge authority in service of her best judgment. While executive Walter White wanted a strongly centralized organization that issued top-down campaigns directing branch efforts to national directives, Baker continually argued for transferring skills to local branches to facilitate their deciding and acting their own priorities and issues. She also disagreed fiercely with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the SCLC, feeling that a culture of hero-worship around King “was not mere froth but a harmful end in itself” because it obscured and obstructed the self-directed, bottom-up, large-scale collective efforts of the many that were absolutely essential and had to be cultivated in order to bring about change (qtd in Ransby 2003, p. 188).

Finally, Baker was an explicit advocate of a distinctive kind of political integrity which consists in remaining true to the cause: of dismantling rather than merely ascending the ladder. She warned against the “accommodating type of Negro leader who…is quick to limit the Negro’s drive for civil rights to some one phase, such as voter registration, and who pointedly avoids mention of desegregation of schools, buses, housing, public facilities, etc.” (Moye 2013, p. 103), as well as “the American weakness of being recognized and having arrived and taking on the characteristics and the values, even, of the foe” (Ransby 2003, p. 191). This is surely one of the most difficult aspects of maintaining political integrity: staying impervious to systems of injustice whose most seductive dangers emerge only once resistance has been in some measure successful, and being willing to soldier on with the grueling and inglorious work of day-to-day organizing on which that success always depends.

Let me briefly offer some last thoughts, suggested by Baker’s own choices, concerning the possibilities and limits of integrity in politics. Historian Barbara Ransby writes:

Baker certainly had to maintain a variety of public and private identities in order to carry out the work that she did in different venues and disparate political and social climates…

For much of her adult political life, Ella Baker was a socialist without a party or a party line…Her own worldview was constructed from an amalgam of different ideologies and traditions, combining the black Baptist missionary values of charity, humility, and service with the economic theories of Marxists and socialists of various strips who advocated a redistribution of wealth. (371)

The relational skills, flexibility, and overarching pragmatism described here by Ransby strikes me as exactly what is required for movement-building of the sort at which Baker excelled. But negotiating demands between principle and pragmatism poses serious risks to integrity. To take one example: activists in Montgomery passed over the case of Claudette Colvin, an unmarried, pregnant working-class teenager, and Mary Louise Smith, teenage daughter of a known alcoholic, both of whom were arrested for challenging streetcar segregation weeks before Rosa Parks. According to Parks, volunteer branch secretary of the Montgomery NAACP who first met Baker at one of the latter’s Leadership Training Conferences, they were looking for “a plaintiff who was more upstanding before we went ahead and invested any more time, effort, and money” (Moye 2013, p. 83).

One of the few (self-acknowledged) mistakes in Baker’s life was a failure to come out strongly against anti-Communism in her earlier years with the NAACP. While she believed in civil liberties, she was against allowing Communists to be members because it “put the organization at risk of persecution by the government” (Ransby 2003, p. 407); this position, perhaps, allowed her to rationalize her role in the NAACP’s Communist purge in the late 1950s. But such a view ran counter to Baker’s “big tent” approach throughout the rest of her life to embracing allies of all stripes, and her later explanation that “I followed a national office directive to the letter, and I should not have” belies her famous willingness to buck organizational authority in other cases (Ransby 2003, p. 161). As leftist and other social movements continue to struggle in the devastating wake of anti-Communism, Baker “eventually [came] to the conclusion that the corrosive effect of anticommunism had to be fought aggressively if any broad-based progressive movement was going to survive” (Ransby 2003, p. 235). One could say that the willingness to offer up Communist allies in exchange for respectability constituted a lack of integrity that proved a costly drain on the ultimate strength of progressive movements.

I want to suggest that Baker may have missed another opportunity, as a result of a different sort of lack of integrity. Baker’s lifelong policy was to excise, rather than incorporate, her personal life from her political work: she kept her marriage and subsequent divorce almost entirely secret from the public. According to Moye, Baker’s firm refusal to discuss her marriage was a way of “defining herself as something other than a traditional wife and mother…[in a way that] refocused attention on her ideas” (2013, p. 6). This seems right, and is another testament to Baker’s unconventionality and integrity to the cause. But it is surely also true that Baker could alternatively have redefined the role of “wife and mother” itself by making her own choices more public. I find it striking that, in a 1969 speech on “The Black Woman in the Civil Rights Struggle,” Baker opened with the following:

I was a little bit amazed as to why the selection of a discussion on the role of black women in the world. I just said to Bernice Reagon that I have never been one to feel great needs in the direction of setting myself apart as a woman. I’ve always thought first and foremost of people as individuals…(Grant 1998, p. 227)

I cannot help but wonder if Baker’s apparent blindness to the importance of gender – consider how strange it would have been for her to say “I have never been one to feel great needs in the direction of setting myself apart as a Black person. I’ve always thought first and foremost of people as individuals” – might be traced to her policy of strictly dividing her personal life from her political. Had they been more integrated, she may have recognized and acted more directly (rather than indirectly, which she undoubtedly did) on specific forms of gender-based oppression.

Of course, sexism may very well itself have been a reason that Baker, consciously or not, was pragmatically wise in choosing to totally distance herself from her identity as a woman. It is a complicated matter, as we need only look to scandals of disgraced politicians to see, to delineate the proper relationship between private and public life. But in light of the above, I suggest that integrity across personal and political, private and political is a desirable aim. Such integrity across multiple identities, I think, surfaces the cross-cutting and intersectional nature of oppressions, giving them their full due, and it can facilitate the envisioning of ways of living in a world that is yet to be. It can constrain the possibility of bad faith excuses, and it can instill confidence in others that the lives devoted to the cause are worth striving for and investing in with one’s own hopes and dreams. In this I think there are very few figures who can lay claim to have embodied so fully the virtue of political integrity as Ella Baker.

Grant, J. (1999). Ella Baker: Freedom Bound. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Moye, J. T. (2013). Ella Baker: Community Organizer of the Civil Rights Movement: Rowman & Littlefield.

Ransby, B. (2003). Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.



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