By Sabrina Ticer-Wurr • December 4, 2023 at 10:35 PM
The Barnard Center for Research on Women and the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia hosted “Ella Baker for the 21st Century,” a one-day symposium—featuring political activist and academic Angela Davis—held on Friday in the Diana Center Event Oval at Barnard. Over 300 people attended the symposium in person, and another 1000 attended through the online live stream. The event honored the 20th anniversary of the publication of “Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement,” a biography of civil rights activist Ella Baker, written by Barbara Ransby, GS ’84, a professor of Black studies, women and gender studies, and history at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
Davis, a professor emerita of history of consciousness at University of California, Santa Cruz and Ransby were featured in the keynote conversation. The event featured welcome remarks, four conversations between scholars, and a reception with remarks and a poetic performance. “This has been a phenomenal one-day symposium … I love hearing these amazing tributes to Barbara,” Davis said during the conversation. Davis and Ransby recounted their initial meeting, when Ransby was a graduate student at the University of Michigan. Both Davis and Ransby said that they have been learning from each other ever since. “I think that’s a big lesson from Ella Baker too, you know, she said every contact with another human being you get some value from it,” Ransby said. “She had this enormous capacity … to appreciate us in all of our multiple dynamics.”
Davis recounted feeling solidarity “in the pit of my stomach” after Israel began airstrikes against Gaza in response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Ransby and Davis both spoke about the importance of Black feminism, solidarity with movements in Gaza, and opposing fascism. “This is one of the reasons why we are so passionate about guaranteeing that this movement in solidarity with Palestine is not subject to the kind of repression that is happening on this campus,” Davis said. Davis criticized the Columbia administration for being “repressive” in its treatment of the student organizations Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace. The University suspended the student groups on Nov. 10 following an “unauthorized” walkout, citing violations of event policies that had been changed 17 days earlier. “I think it’s so important for us not to underestimate where we are and what we represent. On a campus like Columbia where you have an administration that is dedicated to making it impossible for people to gather freely and exchange ideas about what needs to be done to stop the violence and the genocide in Gaza you sometimes become a little myopic,” Davis said. “And you can forget that the reason they’re so repressive in the first place is because they never imagined that they would see anything like this. They never imagined that there would be a Jewish organization standing together with Students for Justice in Palestine and leading the way for all of us. That is very threatening.”
In response to Davis’s claims, a spokesperson for Columbia offered a written statement. “The University continues to support its students who wish to express themselves through respectful speech while at the same time it fulfills its responsibility to maintain the activities and functions of the institution without disruption,” they wrote in an email to Spectator. The event began with remarks from Premilla Nadasen, professor of history at Barnard College and co-director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women. Nadasen described the symposium as a “really amazing gathering of people” brought together with the goal of thinking “about the significance of Ella Baker’s radical legacy for this political moment” and honoring Ransby. Nadasen called Ransby’s book “a model of Black feminist scholarship.” Speaking about current events on campus, Nadasen said, “our very ability, to write, to teach, and speak has been curtailed.” Nadasen then invited student leaders from the newly reformed Columbia University Apartheid Divest coalition, made up of over 80 student groups. Leaders thanked the Barnard Center for Research on Women for being “such incredible allies” and for inviting them to speak at the symposium given the University’s recent cancellation of a separate online event organized by Columbia Global Centers in Amman titled “The Legacies of Edward Said: Academic Praxis and the Question of Palestine.”
A representative from SJP recalled a quote from a 1974 speech that Ella Baker made at a rally in Puerto Rico and referenced the scale of protests organized by SJP and JVP on campus in the weeks following Oct. 7. The representative said that “It gives me a lot of hope and it gives me a lot of strength, the solidarity that we see.” “As long as any of our voices go unheard, the rest of us are also being silenced,” a representative of JVP said at the event. The representatives highlighted the suspension of SJP and JVP as an example of censorship and silencing by the University, and the speakers received a standing ovation.
The first group of speakers engaged in a conversation titled “Black Women and the Black Radical Tradition,” which was moderated by Gina Dent, professor of feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The conversation featured remarks from Robin D.G. Kelley, professor of American studies at the University California, Los Angeles, and Gary B. Nash endowed chair of U.S. History. Dayo Gore, associate professor of African American Studies at Georgetown University, and Mariame Kaba, an activist and educator, also spoke. Kelley recounted the history of Ella Baker’s activism as a Black feminist. “I want to link, in this schematic way, Baker’s praxis and ideas with radical women and women of color active in the struggle for free Palestine.” Gore spoke about how Ransby’s book fits within the Black radical feminist tradition and how it resonated with her from the standpoint of representation and group organizing. “In part, I think one of the things that really spoke to me about the piece was the way the book was a way to emphasize the centrality of collective work, networks, and ‘your people’ to Baker’s life,” Gore said. Kaba provided a history of the Black radical tradition and freedom movement. “What an amazing legacy from what we can and should build and learn,” she said.
After a lunch break, the second group of speakers took the stage to participate in a conversation moderated by Farah Jasmine Griffin, William B. Ransford professor of English and comparative literature and African American and African diaspora studies, called “Teaching Ella Baker.” Speakers included Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, professor of African American Studies at Princeton University; Robyn Spencer, professor of African American studies and history at Wayne State University; and Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Anna Julia Cooper professor of women’s studies at Spelman College.
“We desperately need this book, we need figures like Barbara, we need the generations that she’s bequeathed us, especially at this time,” Griffin said. “This is a very unique moment in time and history, so thank you, young people, for moving us forward, Ella Baker knew that.” Guy-Sheftall spoke about teaching Ella Baker and Black freedom movements to her students at Spelman. “I am actually joyful about the impact of Ella Baker and other Black feminists, many of whom are in this room, on our commitment to radical social change,” Guy-Sheftall said. “I want to say this quote of Ella’s, ‘We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.’”
Taylor spoke about Ella Baker’s ideas on organizing, the need to speak up on issues that are central to Baker’s legacy, and the need to support young people in their activism. “When college campuses led by cowards and sycophants ban student groups who stand with Palestinians…even as Palestinian American students are shot in the streets, we must say that Palestinian lives matter,” Taylor said.
Spencer spoke about the importance of teaching uncensored and accurate history. “In the moment as hundreds of thousands of people stand up all around the country and use history on the side of justice for the people of Palestine, understanding the power of resistance is one of the most profound things we can do,” she said.
After a short coffee break, the crowd broke out in song following the lead of two attendees with microphones, singing “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round” by the Freedom Singers. The next panel titled “What Ella Baker’s Legacy Means for the Freedom Movement Today” featured four speakers. Maurice Mitchell, organizer and national director of the Working Families Party; Damon Williams, co-director of the Let Us Breathe Collective; Karissa Lewis of Movement for Black Lives; and Derecka Purnell, author and activist, spoke in a conversation moderated by Cathy Cohen, David and Mary Winton Green Distinguished Service professor of political science at the University of Chicago. Williams and Purnell filled in for two speakers who were unable to attend. Mitchell, Williams, Lewis, and Purnell spoke about how their activism is informed by Ella Baker. “What happens when the ethics and the morals are simple, but the politics are complex? That’s one of the things that we’re wrestling with,” Williams said.
The event ended with a reception featuring remarks by associate professor of history Sarah Haley and professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies Jafari Allen. DJ Lynnée Denise and poet Kristiana Rae Colón performed.