African American Fraternities and Sororities: Our Fight Has Just Begun

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)

Just after I graduated from law school, in 2008, my second book was published -- Black Greek-letter Organizations in the Twenty-First Century: Our Fight Has Just Begun (University Press of Kentucky). In the foreword, I made two points about the choice of the title, one internal to Black Greek-Letter Organizations (BGLOs), the other external. First, there are a host of internal issues that they must address. Second, and similarly, their efforts to uplift African Americans must be robust and meaningful. Together, these two dynamics -- internal and external -- are fights that were not resolved in the 20th Century; they are fights that BGLOs must take-on in this day and in this age in order for to remain relevant, impactful, and even viable.

We are now in the shadow of the United States Supreme Court opinions in Shelby County v. Holder (2013) and Fisher v. Texas (2013). We had to grapple with the court opinions in the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis. Now, we wrangle with the grand jury decisions resulting from the killing of two black men -- Mike Brown and Eric Garner -- by police officers. Figuratively, and in some ways literally, the country is on fire. People have taken to the streets to protest, rally, and resist. And the feelings and cries for justice have reverberated around the globe.

On Facebook, journalist Roland Martin asked his followers where were BGLOs in this modern Civil Rights struggle? Brother Martin is a proud member of the same fraternity as W.E.B. Du Bois, Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, Paul Robeson, Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others -- Alpha Phi Alpha -- as am I. His question was a reasonable one. Black Greek-Letter Organizations are at a crossroads for a host of reasons. But to Brother Martin's point, will BGLOs be meaningfully engaged in this modern struggle for racial equality? Will they be timid and do enough just to say that they did something? Will they sit on the sidelines?

I am Alpha Phi Alpha's national Chair of its Commission on Racial Justice. My words here however, reflect my insider's experience and an outsider's (as simply a law professor who researches BGLOs) analysis. Alpha Phi Alpha's General President, Mark S. Tillman has pushed on many fronts to get and keep Alpha Phi Alpha engaged in racial uplift. He has called on brothers and urged them to meaningfully work in their communities, including around racial justice. He, himself, went to Ferguson, Missouri to rally Alpha Phi Alpha brothers in the aftermath of the Mike Brown shooting. As quiet as it was attempted to be kept, though publicly leaked somehow, General President Tillman pushed for the fraternity to pay Mike Brown's funeral expenses -- not in an effort to show-up any other group, but rather to take the burden off the family of having to collect from multiple sources to cover the cost. Even more, he supported the allocation of a six-figure donation to four Civil Rights organizations from the fraternity and for broad and long-term partnerships between Alpha Phi Alpha and those organizations (for more details contact Alpha Phi Alpha's Corporate Office). As the fraternity's national Chair for racial justice, am I satisfied? No! I am never satisfied, as I believe in the ideals and mission of my fraternity, and I think we must constantly push to our limits of excellence, brotherhood, and service. But it is a good start and template.

Whether we look at the history of individual BGLO members, or their collective organizational work through the American Council of Human Rights from 1948-1963, or their funding of Civil Rights litigation, these organizations have a remarkable history of social activism. Indeed, each BGLO has a social activism component, but we live in a time in which they must be more robust, broad, and assertive. The old guard, the leadership within these groups, cannot afford to be out-of-step with the zeitgeist of the time. Young members want to take to the streets, to change the system, not gradually, but now! This is not a new problem. In a chapter within Our Fight Has Just Begun, social scientist and professor Matthew W. Hughey, penned the following words:

... the problem is ... there is not enough attention on postinitiation instruction that encourages member consolidation and political awareness. "So¬lutions" to these problems have thus far mirrored the dynamics of colonialism, whereby a foreign power (alumni chapter or executive office) issues authoritar¬ian mandates to its subjects, only to be surprised when that repression breeds resistance. More attention must focus on developing interchapter partnerships and undergraduate-led solutions so that collegiate members are fully invested in and wholeheartedly committed to plans and goals. (2008, p. 409)

Black Greek-Letter Organizations will either lead their membership toward societal change, support their membership in this regard, or risk losing this young, strong, and dedicated generation to organizations more worthy of these youth's ideals and efforts. It is a clarion call made by scholars Drs. Vernon Mitchell and Jessica Harris, several years ago.

We can no longer afford to be trapped by the trivialities of provincialism, organizational politics, and lack of vision. Our people need servant leaders, and, truthfully, they need more than our organizations have given and currently give. Black Greek-Letter Organizations must be more, do more, or risk being no more.