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From Ella J. Baker

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Author: Baker, Ella J.

Date: April 18, 1958

Location: Atlanta, Ga.

Genre: Letter

Topic: Voter registration


On 9 January veteran New York organizer Baker moved to Atlanta to coordinate plans for the Crusade for Citizenship.1 Baker first worked from a hotel room before securing office space at 208 Auburn Avenue, where she operated with scarce resources. Baker later remembered creating voter education pamphlets by clipping and pasting words from magazines and newspapers, adding, “I worked out of my vest pocket and whatever access I could have to a telephone at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Frequently, I had to make use of pay coin telephones.”2 In the following letter Baker reports on events in the Atlanta office.

Dear Martin:

Thanks for the call today, en route.3 If I sounded disconnected it is because I worked until three this morning and you caught me in the midst of a bit of marital counselling: for office efficiency.

Here is Stanley’s letter to which I referred and the material from Dr. Henry, also.4

Since talking with you I spoke with Sam Williams and he said that he would call you tonight. He has not heard from Rev. Pitts, but is trying to reach him today.5

As I told you there is a possibility of four Voting Clinics before our May 29th Conference; Alabama, Florida, and the New Orleans-BatonRouge; and Shreveport-Texas areas. I hope we can clear the dates next week.6


1. According to Baker, Rustin and Levison had met with King in late 1957 and committed her services to the Crusade. Baker, irritated that the agreement had taken place in her absence, reluctantly agreed to relocate to Atlanta: “My sense of values cames with it something to this effect: that the welfare of the whole . . . is much more important than the ego satisfaction of the individual.” Following the Crusade, Baker agreed to remain with the fledgling SCLC (Ella Baker, Interview by John Britton, 19 June 1968).

2. Baker, Interview by John Britton.

3. At the time of this letter King was traveling to Boston after speaking at Northwestern University.

4. Baker refers to Stanley Levison and Aaron E. Henry, president of the Clarksdale branch of the NAACP. In a 5 April 1958 letter, Henry told Baker that the Regional Council of Negro Leadership was considering submitting petitions to the Civil Rights Commission complaining that black Americans were unable to register to vote in Mississippi. After Baker shared Henry’s suggestion with Levison, he consulted Harris Wofford, a legal advisor to the Commission. In a 14 April letter to Baker, Levison relayed Wofford’s advice that the petitions would be better received by the Commission if the complaints were filed by individuals rather than by organizations “because the Commission will be worried about criticism that they are [being] manipulated or are subject to pressure.”

5. King’s Morehouse philosophy professor Samuel Woodrow Williams served as vice president of SCLC and assisted Baker in locating office space for the organization. In December 1957 the administrative committee of SCLC had agreed to ask educator Lucius Pitts to serve as the organization’s executive director. After Pitts declined the position several months later, SCLC hired Baltimore minister John L. Tilley in May 1958 (Cuthbert O. Simpkins, Minutes, SCLC administrative committee meeting, 19 December 1957; King to Tilley, 9 May 1958).

6. The 29 May conference in Clarksdale, Mississippi, was designed to train southern activists to organize voter registration drives (see King to Eisenhower, 29 May 1958, pp. 414-415 in this volume). There is no evidence that the planned voting clinics took place.

Source: MLKP-MBU. Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, 1954-1968, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University, Boston, Mass.

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