On February 1, 1960 four black students sat down at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, NC sparking one of Black America’s largest waves of protest. By the end of February the sit-in movement had grown to thirty communities in seven states and by April had spread across the entire South, involving up to 50,000 participants. Over the next decade the leaders who emerged out of this wave of actions would carry out some of the most important campaigns of the Civil Rights movement — from the Freedom Rides to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s challenge to racism of the Democratic Party. Eventually their work would help to topple the Jim Crow regime and launch the Black Power movement.
In the decade after the sit-ins, these new leaders would experience both incredible triumphs and crushing defeats. They would try different strategies and tactics for Black liberation from direct action to bring down segregation to voter registration to build Black political power. Underlying every new stage of the struggle was a deep dedication to breaking the chains of fear and internalized inferiority and transforming the conditions of violence and exploitation that limited the potential for the full flourishing of Black lives. For these leaders, personal liberation and social transformation were inseparable and the role of leadership was, at its heart, the practice of supporting everyday people in taking effective action to transform themselves and their conditions in the face of great odds and uncertain outcomes.
Today we talk about this style of personal and social transformation and this approach to leadership as transformative organizing. For the transformative organizers, leadership is understood more as a practice than a position, more a relationship than a role. Leadership is not simply a place in an organizational structure, it is a discipline and a path — a calling to become powerful catalysts of and embodiments of transformation. In the context of Black organizing, we call this the path of Black mastery.
Each leader and moment in the history of the Black Freedom Movement offers rich lessons for us. However, as we reflect on the current movement moment, we think there are eight elements of Black mastery that are most relevant for us today: courage, compassion, authenticity, accountability, rigor, resilience, attention, and agility. We find it useful to group them into four pairs, where the element balance each other.
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