In a few days, tens -- if not hundreds -- of thousands of people will converge upon this nation's capital to witness the historic unveiling of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on the National Mall. The idea for the memorial began with a handful of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity members in 1983, the year President Ronald Reagan signed the King Holiday Bill into law. In 1985, Alpha's general organization began the long process of securing congressional legislation, authorizing the fraternity to raise the $120 million needed to build the memorial, and dedicating land for its construction.
Undoubtedly, most American citizens have some idea of who Dr. King was -- that he fought and laid down his life for racial and social justice, utilized the strategy of non-violent passive resistance toward this end, and gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Although many Americans are aware of Dr. King's activism, fewer know as much about the fraternity into which he was initiated. In 1952, as a graduate student at Boston University, Dr. King joined the first continuous intercollegiate, African-American fraternity. Founded on Dec. 4, 1906, at Cornell University, Alpha Phi Alpha fit perfectly with his budding ideals of service.
Influenced by elements of the African-American church and secret societies, white collegiate fraternities and literary societies, as well as the racial climates at Cornell and the nation at the turn of the 20th century, seven young men founded this brotherhood. As one Alpha founder noted about the fraternity's origins, "Society offered us narrowly circumscribed opportunity and no security. Out of our need, our fraternity brought social purpose and social action."
While Alpha established a network of like-minded men who could enjoy each other's company, the fraternity was fashioned to be much more than that. Cardinal features of Alpha's identity include high academic achievement, gentlemanliness, deep and abiding brotherhood among members, as well as a commitment to uplifting the disadvantaged through civic action, policy, and service. It is no wonder that Alpha's membership has been comprised of luminaries like W.E.B. Du Bois, the great scholar and social agitator; Charles Hamilton Houston, architect of the NAACP's effort to dismantle public school segregation; Paul Robeson, an American Renaissance man who pushed the boundaries of black identity and political freedom; Thurgood Marshall, the litigator of the famous 1954 Brown v. Board case and the first African-American U.S. Supreme Court Justice.
While African-American men founded Alpha and the fraternity has remained largely African American, it evolved to come close to one of King's ideals, the universality of brotherhood. Alpha initiated its first white member in 1946 -- a dental student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In 1954, a white brother (Roger Youmans) addressed a national convention for the first time. Incidentally, upon deciding to pledge Alpha, Youmans found a cross burning on his lawn. Today, professor, poet, and former Rhodes Scholar Dr. Andrew Zawacki assists Alpha in moving ever-closer to King's dream of universal brotherhood.
The King Memorial, and Alpha's effort to edify the legacy of one of its own, cast a spotlight on the fraternity's ideals and the manifestation of those ideals. This is especially so in an era when African-American fraternities and sororities are under increasing scrutiny and criticism and at a time when many wonder whether these organizations are still relevant.
In fact, research suggests that the very principles upon which Alpha and other black Greek-letter organizations (BGLOs) were founded no longer hold as much currency with members of these organizations. For instance, forthcoming research on BGLOs' academic achievement reveals that their college chapter grade point averages have been unremarkable, if not poor. Then, while there is no empirical research on BGLOs' uplift activities, notwithstanding some recent acts, their civic activism and efforts to shape public policy seemed to have waned. Without such activism, their often unrecorded acts of community service and philanthropy serve as their only uplift activities. Other research, some dated and some forthcoming, contends that homophobia is a significant issue within African-American fraternities. In fact, according to one study, young men in BGLOs seem persistent in their groping for the man's man or ladies' man identity, eschewing the gentleman scholar image -- often associated with Alpha. In fact, one study's participant indicated that young African-American men would much rather be identified with rapper 50 Cent than Dr. King.
The unveiling of the King memorial is great cause for celebration, but it is also a time for reflection -- particularly for the organization that spearheaded its construction and shares intertwined ideals with one of its greatest members. After more than 100 years of existence, it is imperative for Alpha to ask to what extent its agenda in action reflects King's dream and the legacy. Self-reflection, even for an organization, is a difficult task, but as the brothers of Alpha celebrate their crowning achievement this week, our hope is that they consider the greater monuments that they have left to build.
Gregory S. Parks (Assistant Professor of Law, Wake Forest University School of Law) and Stefan M. Bradley (Associate Professor, Saint Louis University) are Alpha Phi Alpha members and the editors of the forthcoming book entitled Alpha Phi Alpha: A Legacy of Greatness, the Demands of Transcendence (University Press of Kentucky 2011).