*Waves* Welcome Civil Writes vol x, where I profile behind-the-scenes operations/admin badasses of the American Civil Rights Movement and document their data cultures and practices. If you’re primarily here for spreadsheet tips, stick around – there is more to come. As always, if you have a spreadsheet/database dilemma, write to my Dear Spreadsheet Whisperer column and I’ll write back, usually with puns. Onward!
I just finished reading Ella Baker & the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision by Dr. Barbara Ransby. What a fucking brilliant contribution to social movement storytelling and praxis. The care and rigor that was packaged into this ~400 pg read is almost hard to put into words. Ella Baker is a personal heroine of mine, partially because of her reputation for truly grassroots organizing + popular democracy + radical pedagogy and even more because of her innate ability to ‘code switch’ and co-exist in multiple organizations and movements despite tensions and contradictions. I could learn so much from her example! We are privileged to study Ella Baker’s life and contributions because she is one of relatively few prominent civil rights leaders who lived a full life and died of natural causes. Because of this, we can see how her thinking evolved and how she applied lessons from her lived experience to refine her organizing practices and push organizations to be ever more responsive to class dynamics and her core value of self-determination.
Ok clearly I could gush a LOT about Ella Baker and about this book. But don’t just take my word for it! Read along if you feel so moved!
I say this with a ton of respect and reverence for the work: there was a huge, gaping void where the administrative and operations work should be.
This breaks my tender lil heart because I KNOW Ella Baker must have been incredibly organized and efficient in her work, maintaining contacts with hundreds (thousands?) of rural families and organizers in her many-decades-long career as an field organizer and campaigner spanning quite a few organizations (NAACP, SCLC, SNCC, SCEF, and some informal affiliations!). She is remembered as being a renown relationship builder and connector. She must have had personal systems, and at various points, even secretarial support, to keep up her level of productivity and connection!
The few times this is mentioned in the text are cursory at best, flippant at worst! There are a few anecdotes about “who is going to run the mimeograph machine?” but nowhere near the amount of attention that administrative operations really deserve, especially given the centrality of relationships in Ella Baker’s political orientation.
Here is one place where Dr. Ransby touches on the subject, and more elaboration would have been very welcome!
She typed minutes, drafted internal documents, maintained a mailing list, kept in phone contact with interested students, and recruited new ones. She found meeting sites and office space and secured funds from SCLC and other sympathetic donors. Although Baker was still being paid by SCLC, she was now working for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.Ransby 247
I think Dr. Ransby affords the space here because she wants to show that Ella Baker was willing to do the tedious work, the grunt work, of a fledgling organization. And while this does demonstrate Baker’s legendary “sleeves rolled up” mentality, I think it has the unintended consequence of silo-ing this work, rather than centralizing it as THE WORK of a new organization.
Ella Baker routinely “wrote down the names of contacts in each state [and in this case] [Bob] Moses set off for a monthlong journey with a bus ticket and a list of telephone numbers in his pocket. The contacts he made that summer  laid the foundation for some of NSCC’s most important community organizing work” (Ransby 262).
In one last example of the mechanics of organizing, Dr. Ransby offers us a glimpse into Baker’s process for recussitating SCLC’s Crusade for Citizenship in early 1959.
“Events were scheduled to kick off in twenty-one cities on the same day. Baker wrote letters, flyers, and press releases to promote these events. She made extensive phone calls to build support for the campaign, identify and coordinate activities, and make sure all the necessary logistics were in place. Within a few weeks, she had a roster of speakers lined up for the rallies.” (181-182)
Nowadays, I can imagine how this information would be organized in a monster Google Sheet, perhaps with one tab per event! For Dr. Ransby, the bird’s eye view of planning was enough, but for me… I am hungry for the nitty gritty.
As I worked my way through the text, there were so many times when I paused my reading to imagine how it would be possible to keep track of so much information. My head and my heart feel so drawn to this question because it’s something that unites organizers across generations!
When Ella Baker was recruiting members and collecting dues for the NAACP in the 40’s, what systems did she use to record engagement? Surely the NAACP had some sort of national membership documentation process…
During the Mississippi Freedom Vote project of 1963, how do we know that 83,000 votes were cast? Did staff or volunteers count them? Did they use a machine?
1,500 volunteers joined the Freedom Summer initiative. Did any of the organizations maintain a comprehensive list? I can only imagine that they did! So, where in the coalition did that responsibility lie and what system did they use?
From what I understand so far, Ella Baker documented much of her work through writing memos to her various employers. These memos were very detailed and structured, including full travel itineraries, notes on political strategies, new recruits, insights, and more. As she was well known for having a private personal life and for denying time in the spotlight, as far as I can tell, we do not have many records of her “papers” (journals, notes, calendars, etc) beyond the formal writing that she did for work and the articles/speeches that she provided over the years.
Using the biography of Ella Baker as a springboard, I went on a research expedition determined to find some primary source documents that show evidence of data and administrative processes in SNCC. Of course, at this stage of the project, I am limited to what I can find in digitized archives. One day, I dream of going to in-person archives and exploring documents in person – donation receipts, financial reports, contact lists, mass mail instructions, etc. Here are a couple excerpts from what I found.
- Memorandum on personnel practices and office equipment, October 22, 1959 (link)
What I love so much about this resource is Ella Baker sorting out what HR policies and office equipment should include, along with clear justifications outlining why SNCC should buy a tape dispenser (!!) and various deals on leasing typewriters. This is reminiscent of long board meetings I’ve attended where we debate whether we should use limited organization funds to purchase a printer. In my older age, my answer is always… yes.
- Invitees, SNCC Conference, October 14-16, 1960 (link)
OMG! A contact list! My spreadsheet nerd brain is fascinated that they subdivided the page into sections by state, followed by organization affiliations at the end. This would be kind of excruciating to sort and manipulate in spreadsheet form, but it makes perfect sense as a typewritten document!
- Partial List of Freedom Riders, late May 1961 (link)
Oh man, a list of names in paragraph format! So much good info here and yet so hard to figure out how many people are represented! I imagine that the people who documented this would not have expected it to end up on a digital archive site 60 years later! I honor the people who are on the list and the people who typed it up. Thank you thank you thank you for your service.
- Memorandum to Friends of SNCC, September 14, 1964 (link)
This memo is … hilarious and so, so real. I think it demonstrates the extreme pressure that office workers faced during the civil rights movement as well as the operational decisions that were required but rarely discussed. Phone lines! Hours of correspondence! This is so relatable to my work and I’m sure to many of yours 🙂
- Parish Assignments, Addresses and Phone Numbers, May 31, 1965 (link)
I am loving this document because it most resembles a spreadsheet ❤ not that that should be the standard of every doc, but I’m just really appreciating the thoughtful organization, which was probably REALLY annoying to do on a typewriter! Plus, look at the second column where each person has a particular financial designation.
- Alabama Summer Project Application Form, 1965 (link)
Ahhhhhh a form! The building block of a spreadsheet! As organizers, we create oh so many of these and figuring out how to deal with the responses, is well, quite an undertaking. Take a look at the specific questions that they asked. How do our registration forms compare today?
The deeper I get into the civil writes research project (wowzers, this is the 10th post!), the more motivation I feel to grasp this (often) unwritten and underappreciated history. I was hoping that in a biography about someone who performed SO MUCH invisible emotional labor, we would get to see more of the administrative invisible labor that I can only assume occupied large portions of Ella Baker’s days.
Day in and day out, we spend SO much time entering data into our systems, using data to answer questions, building better systems, or grappling with systems that just don’t work as well as we need them to. I don’t think this is a uniquely contemporary problem!
By digging into this history, we can surface solutions that we weren’t expecting, shine the light on behind the scenes leaders, and commit to high standards for operationalizing great organizing strategies. Are you with me? There’s a lot more work to do!