Ella Josephine Baker was born 1903 in Norfolk, VA but reared in Littleton, North Carolina. In 1927 she graduated from Shaw University as valedictorian. In the early 1930s, in one of her first efforts at implementing social improvement, she helped organize the Young Negroes Cooperative League, which was created to form cooperative groups that would pool community resources providing less-expensive goods and services to members.

Inspired by the historic bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, Baker met with a group of Southern black ministers and helped form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to coordinate reform efforts throughout the South.  She left the SCLC in 1960 to help student leaders of college activist groups organize the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). With her guidance and encouragement, SNCC became one of the foremost advocates for human rights in the country.