History and Tradition. Values and Morals. Legacy and Leadership. Since 1906, Black Greek Letter Organizations (BGLO) have been established at college campuses across the United States with offices in several other countries. Also referred to as “The Divine Nine," BGLOs are made up of nine organizations that include Alpha Phi Alpha, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi, Omega Psi Phi, Delta Sigma Theta, Phi Beta Sigma, Zeta Phi Beta, Sigma Gamma Rho, and Iota Phi Theta. They have stood at the forefront of many movements in the past, and continue to do major work in the African American community through various national programs and initiatives. Unfortunately, the days of activism have begun to fade and the silence of our beloved organizations is getting louder.
The silence I speak of is the lack of acknowledgement and mobilization that BGLOs have taken in the wake of the many civil rights atrocities African Americans have faced in recent years. It leaves me to question whether our program initiatives and projects directly attack the issue, or serve as a band aid to the problem. There are three issues in particular where I feel the failure of our Greek organizations is particularly problematic:
The Prison Industrial Complex: A huge topic of discussion recently has been the criminalization of Black youth which feeds both young men and young women into the carceral system. To counteract that, organizations like Phi Beta Sigma and Alpha Phi Alpha have created programs targeting Black boys that ties into President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative. These mentorship programs are designed to help young African American men reach their potential through scholarship, mentorship, tutoring, etc. Although mentorship is very important, I would have like to have seen our organizations take a risk and directly place our efforts on the “School-to-Prison Pipeline." Mentorship tend to only help those who are able to bypass or escape the systematic oppressions of discipline in the educational system that disproportionately affect African Americans. Taking that issue head on would increase the value of the My Brother’s Keeper program in ways that the White House may not achieve. There is also a ripe opportunity for our sororities to address the disproportionate number of Black women and girls who are trapped by the School-to-Prison Pipeline as well.
Women’s Contraceptive Rights: To quote Martin Luther King “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” As fraternities rest on traditions of chivalry, and the protection of women, the silence after the Hobby Lobby Decision spoke volumes. The challenge to women’s contraceptive rights is a very touchy subject, but it is one that must be addressed in a meaningful way, not just for our women, but for our entire communities. Although this topic may have been discussed at local levels, to the nation we said nothing. We have done nothing. Then again, I was unable to find any statement released by our sororities either which came as an even bigger surprise. Again, it is understood that pregnancy termination methods and contraception are a hot button issue. But to pretend that we are immune to this decision which will affect our sisters/members is not acceptable. As BGLOs, we must begin to take risks and have conversations about the elephant in the room. Times have changed and with that, our views on the important decisions that disproportionately affect us must be discussed.
The Death of Mike Brown and the Uprising in Ferguson: The events that have taken place in St. Louis over the last two months have put police abuse of young Black men in the spotlight. I commend Alpha Phi Alpha, Omega Psi Phi, Alpha Kappa Alpha and Delta Sigma Theta. for releasing national statements on this matter. I applaud Alpha Phi Alpha again for offering to pay for the funeral, but asking that the fraternity have the exclusive right to pay for it was not appropriate here. I think it is problematic and divisive when we take an issue that effects all of us and miss the opportunity on collaboration as an entire NPHC to show solidarity. Even as an Alpha, I would have loved seeing the National Panhellenic Council say “as a unified front, we will take care of Mike Brown’s funeral services”. This was the time to for us to collaborate and mobilize together for an important cause, not for one organization to make sure they shined more brightly than the others.
BGLOs have always had thought leaders and activists among their ranks. Anna Julia Cooper (AKA), Martin Luther King (Alpha), Jesse Jackson (Omega), Dorothy Height (Delta) and countless others have been pillars in the arenas of civil rights, politics, and education. That tradition of leadership is seen manifested in modern day activists such as Philip Agnew and Ahmad Abuznaid (Alpha) of the Dream Defenders and scholar Marc Lamont Hill (Kappa), but is definitely not as prevalent as it once was. Theodore Johnson attributed this change to the BGLO narrative being dominated by “stepping” and “hazing” and less about the “work and service." It seems that many of us Greeks are turning to spaces outside of our organizations to do the important work of changing the world. Why is it that so many of us are joining grassroots efforts like the Dream Defenders and BYP 100? Is it lack of buy in from our Greek orgs on our passions and beliefs? Is it an unwillingness to change the values or missions to coincide with the current state of the African American Community?
We are in the dawn of a new era of civil rights era and with that, are national programs and objectives of yesteryear need to be re-evaluated and assessed. Black Greek organizations must harness the power of both our history and our ranks to solidify our rightful place as leaders in the community, or else we have no real purpose in the modern world.
An active member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated, George Johnson is a hgher education advocate with positions held at Virginia Union University and Georgetown University. He has written for Diverse Education, Huffpost College, and HBCU Digest. Follow him on Twitter: @iamgmjohnson