Black Fraternities (and Sororities) as Social Justice Organizations: A Model and a Vision

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 20:  Members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. participates in the 2014 Martin Luther King, Jr. March
ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 20: Members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. participates in the 2014 Martin Luther King, Jr. March & Rally at Peachtree Street on January 20, 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images)

In the July issue of Essence magazine, Donna M. Owens brings to the fore a topic that has not been addressed in some time--the extent to which black Greek-letter organizations ("BGLOs") are social justice organizations. Her article, "Sister Soldiers: A Look at Black Sororities in the Black Lives Matter Movement," has come at an interesting time. It is a period in which at least one of the nine major BGLOs--Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity--is making an aggressive push in this area. The question that lingers is the extent of its effectiveness and the longevity of such engagement.

Alpha Phi Alpha did not come into existence in a vacuum. Rather, a confluence of factors gave rise it. Given the cultural milieu at the time of its founding, founder Dr. Henry Arthur Callis, described the impetus for fraternity's creation thusly: "[The fraternity] was born in the shadows of slavery and on the lap of disenfranchisement." Elsewhere, he noted, "Society offered us narrowly circumscribed opportunity and no security. Out of our need, our fraternity brought social purpose and social action." Not surprisingly, the Fraternity has had a long history of involvement in African American's advancement and civil rights issues. Through its programs, funding of litigation, financial support and collaboration with other organizations, and the work of individual members, the Fraternity influenced public policy and helped effectuate change in the fight for African American civil rights and social justice.

Rayford W. Logan, elected Alpha Phi Alpha's Director of Education in 1933, created the fraternity's "Education for Citizenship" campaign, now known as "A Voteless People is a Hopeless People" initiative. In the 1930s, fraternity members Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall represented Donald Murray--a Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity member--lawsuit for admission to the University of Maryland Law School. Alpha Phi Alpha paid for Murray's books and tuition until he graduated. In the Lloyd L. Gaines case, Charles Hamilton Houston assisted by fellow Alpha brother, Sidney R. Redmond, in desegregating the University of Missouri-Columbia's law school. In the 1940s, Alpha brother Lyman T. Johnson, with the help of Thurgood Marshall, desegregated the University of Kentucky's graduate school. In the 1950, Heman M. Sweatt, an Alpha brother, represented by Thurgood Marshall, desegregated the University of Texas's law school. The fraternity went-on to fund Elmer W. Henderson's--another member of Kappa Alpha Psi--suit against the Southern Railway Company, challenging dining car segregation. Then fraternity General Counsel, Belford V. Lawson, argued that 1950 case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Alpha Phi Alpha worked with and provided financial support to organizations and individuals. It joined with the NAACP and the New Negro Alliance to assist with litigation attempting to end segregation. The fraternity was a longstanding member of the American Council of Human Rights--an entity comprised of six of the then eight major BGLOs that lobbied Congress for Civil Rights laws from 1948 to 1963. This backdrop does not include the lasting work of Alpha brothers like W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, Jr., Whitney Young, Paul Robeson, William T. Coleman, Julius Chambers, C.T. Vivian, Lester Granger, Andrew Young, Joseph Lowery, Floyd McKissick, Marc Morial and others. Within the fraternity, the Commission on Racial Justice was established as a result of the actions of the fraternity's 1988 General Convention. Over the next twenty years, the Commission's engagement ebbed and flowed but really took a backseat to the symbolisms of social justice--i.e., the fraternity's 120 million dollar effort to build the Martin Luther King, Jr. Monument on the National Mall.

In 2012, Mark S. Tillman was elected General President of Alpha Phi Alpha. In 2013, the Commission, with the support of the fraternity's Public Policy and A-Voteless-People-is-a-Hopeless-People Committees pushed for the fraternity as a whole to develop several strategic partnerships around social justice. In 2013, the fraternity launched its Conversations on Race Experience with Alpha Omicron Pi Women's Sorority and Delta Sigma Pi Fraternity, focused on the groups collegiate chapters. In 2014, the fraternity provided social justice philanthropy to the Dream Defenders, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights under Law, the NAACP, and the NAACP-Legal Defense and Education Fund. In 2015, the Fraternity negotiated a partnership with each of these groups aimed at using some of their collective resources to uplift the African American community. This year, the fraternity will also work with New York Law School's Civil Rights Clinic, focusing on preparing an amicus brief to be submitted to the United States Supreme Court in one of its upcoming cases. Lastly, through the National Pan-Hellenic Council, the Fraternity will partner with the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, focusing on youth engagement with law enforcement.

For some Alpha Phi Alpha members, this initiative will be the coup de grâce. However, in every way, it is merely an auspicious beginning. It is an opportunity for the fraternity to not only reclaim some past glory but also, and more importantly, a chance to reinvigorate its membership and play an impactful role in advancing African American civil rights. It may also provide a template for how the other nine BGLOs can become significantly and meaningfully engaged around social justice issues. Time will tell which road the fraternity takes.