Thousands of Americans gathered in Washington, D.C. Saturday for the ‘Justice for All’ rally. The demonstration was to protest the police shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, as well as decisions not to indict white police officers in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and Eric Garner on Staten Island, N.Y. Those events have roiled the country for weeks, and sparked groups of students, doctors and even congressional staffers to join demonstrations.
But these protests revealed a division among African-American sororities and fraternities. Members of Alpha Kappa Alpha and Delta Sigma Theta, two of the nation’s oldest black sororities, were astonished that the groups’ leadership issued directives that sorors could wear their organization’s colors — but not their letters or logos — at protests.
There were other warnings about conduct. “Do not make statements that are or can be construed as a position of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.,” wrote AKA president Dorothy Buckhanan Wilson in a letter to members. “Should you choose to participate in the aforementioned event and others similar in nature,” the Deltas were warned by their president, Paulette C. Walker, “you are solely responsible for yourself and your activities.” There was a backlash in some black press outlets and across social media as members of both sororities spoke out against the policies.
Then a change of heart for at least one group: the AKAs sent out a new message on Thursday that “We expect our members to be actively involved in solving the social justice issues raised” by the Brown and Garner cases. The organization’s president wrote, “We strongly support and encourage our members’ peaceful and lawful participation in these activities.” The earlier missive forbidding letter display was apparently only “guidance.” As of this writing, Delta Sigma Theta has not changed its position.
Other African-American fraternities and sororities took a very different approach from the beginning. The national leadership of Alpha Phi Alpha, the century-old organization that Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall joined as students, tweeted out a photo of young members with their letters on display at a protest.
Fraternities Omega Psi Phi and Phi Beta Sigma and sorority Zeta Phi Beta have not issued statements discouraging the wearing of letters during protests. Sorority Sigma Gamma Rho did, but it also announced a “social action campaign,” initiatives that include educating young people about their constitutional rights, and pressing for legislation that would demand body cameras for police.
The AP reports that the bans may have arisen after a photo, prominently posted on the Dallas Morning News home page last Saturday, showed a young woman wearing a shirt with the Greek letters for Delta Sigma Theta emblazoned across the front as she was arrested during a demonstration.
When NPR contacted Delta’s national headquarters on Wednesday, we were told the president “is expected to make a statement sometime soon,” but no word as to when. Additional calls were not returned.
Lawrence Ross is the author of ‘The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities,’ a book chronicling the birth and evolution of the country’s nine oldest black Hellenic organizations. A proud member of Alpha Phi Alpha, Ross is married to a Delta; he says she’s mystified by her president’s message.
“Almost every Delta was attracted to (the sorority) because of its proud history of social action,” Ross says. He pointed out that Deltas came into being a few years after the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority was founded. Many members were former AKAs who broke away because they wanted to be more directly involved in social action. Almost as soon as that new organization was formed, members took to the streets — with a banner identifying them as Deltas — to march for women’s suffrage.
“Honestly, I can say without hyperbole, most of the protests (through the modern civil rights movement) you see were sponsored by, run by, or supported by black Greeks,” Ross points out. Martin Luther King, Jr.? Alpha. Congressman John Lewis, one of the younger icons of the civil rights movement, is a member of Phi Beta Sigma, as was Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party.
Ross says there is a disconnect between the leadership of the black Greeks at the national level and their members, particularly after Eric Garner’s death. “That was a tipping point, and as an organization, you’ve got to know that,” he asserts. “When you say that you don’t want the letters (of your Greek organization) to be displayed, yes, intellectually you can say ‘that’s all about liability.'”
“But,” he continues, “the real message is telling people ‘hey, we’re shrinking from the battle.'”
Ross feels sometimes “our fraternities and sororities, we get a little soft when it comes to social action. It’s easier to meet with the president in our fancy suits, or tell everybody ‘dress in your finest and walk to the Capitol.'” But what people need to see, he says, are members marching in protest over issues like police violence against unarmed black citizens. And the prohibition against wearing one’s Greek letters, Ross believes, sends the wrong message: “You’re telling people not to represent. And you can’t tell people that when you’ve marketed your organization as being a social service organization.”
Keep an eye out for photos from Saturday’s march in Washington. If you look closely, you’ll probably see Greek letters—everything from Alpha to Omega. With or without permission.