Claudia Jones and Ella Baker

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Claudia Jones and Ella Baker

On Christmas day 1964, Claudia Jones, only forty-nine years old, died alone in her London apartment. Over three hundred people attended her funeral on January 9, 1965 to commemorate the woman who spent her entire adult life agitating against oppression. “Visitors who come to London’s Highgate Cemetery see that next to the grave of Karl Marx there is the tombstone of Claudia Jones. Many wonder what earned her the honour of being buried beside the founder of scientific communism.” [1] On the other side of the globe, Ella Baker, a leading African-American Civil Rights leader, was defending her theories of decentralized leadership. Tensions mounted in the movement when grassroots organizations rejected the ideas of central leadership and non-violence. One such organization, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), founded in part, by the efforts of Ella Baker, became dedicated to Ella’s ideals of decentralized leadership, challenging the authority of high profile individuals in the Civil Rights Movement. In this paper I will examine the experiences of these two radicals.

Both Ella Baker and Claudia Jones spent their entire adult lives writing, speaking and debating the issues that African-Americans faced. These issues included racist oppression, class hierarchy and the roles of women. However, although they both confronted the same issues, they had divergent philosophies that shaped their political careers. Their individual ideas can be examined in terms of Winston James’ definition of radicalism and Cedric Robinson’s theory of the development of the Black Radical tradition. Although the radicalism of both Ella Baker and Claudia Jones fits within Robinson and James’ definitions, their unique experiences as women helped define their ideas and theories, and transform the role of women in the Black Radical tradition.

In Winston James’, Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia, he defines radicalism or radical politics as, “the challenging of the status quo either on the basis of social class, race (or ethnicity), or a combination of the two.” [2] He goes on to articulate, in terms of the above definition, radicals. According to James radicals, therefore, “are avowed anti-capitalists, as well as adherents of varieties of Black Nationalism.” [3] Included in this definition are those who have attempted to unite anti-capitalist and nationalist thought. Though James examined Black Radicalism in terms of Caribbean migrants in the United States, his definition could be applied to native-born African-Americans as well.

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