Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris and the Political Power of Black Sororities (and Fraternities)

—Gregory S. Parks and Matthew W. Hughey

On the evening of Wednesday, August 19, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris accepted the nomination to be Vice President on the Democratic ticket with former Vice President Joe Biden. During her speech, Senator Harris acknowledged her extended family, including her “beloved Alpha Kappa Alpha [Sorority and] Divine Nine … brothers and sisters.” For many who watched her speech, they probably wondered what “Alpha Kappa Alpha” and the “Divine Nine” were. And once they found out, if they cared to Google the terms, many probably wondered why—on such an occasion—a Vice Presidential candidate would acknowledge a group of fraternities and sororities.

Divine Nine organizations emerged at the turn of the Twentieth Century. A confluence of factors gave rise to them. But central among those factors was what Dr. Henry Arthur Callis, one of the Founders of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, noted. He said “Society offered us narrowly circumscribed opportunity and no security. Out of our need, our fraternity brought social purpose and social action.” That guiding philosophy played a part in the founding of each of the other eight organizations, most of which were established during The Nadir—the low-point of American race relations between Reconstruction and the early Twentieth Century—as described by noted historian, Dr. Rayford Logan. Fictive-kinship ties (brotherhood and sisterhood) rooted in a shared sense of ideals and values about personal excellence, mutual uplift, racial uplift, and institutional preservation were the cornerstones upon which these organizations were founded.

In 1906, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity was founded at Cornell University. Two years later, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority was founded at Howard University. In 1911, Kappa Alpha Psi and  Omega Psi Phi fraternities were founded at Indiana University and Howard University, respectively. In 1913, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority was founded at Howard University. A year later, in 1914, Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity was founded, and then in 1920, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority was founded—both organizations at Howard University. In 1922, Sigma Gamma Rho was founded at Butler University. Over forty years later, in 1963, Iota Phi Theta Fraternity was founded at Morgan State University. Together, these organizations are part of the National Pan-Hellenic Council—affectionately called the “Divine Nine”—founded in 1930. Together, they are a loose federation of organizations with similar missions. However, there have been times in our nation’s history in which they have worked together in critical ways that portend something significant for the moment we now find ourselves in and even for Senator Harris’ candidacy.

In 1938, Alpha Kappa Alpha created the National Non-Partisan Lobby on Civil and Democratic Rights (“NPC”), later renamed the National Non-Partisan Council on Public Affairs. It was the first full-time Congressional lobby for a racial minority group’s civil rights. The NPC worked with an array of other civil rights organizations to advance their collective aims. In 1948, the NPC dissolved and was reconstituted as the American Council on Human Rights (“ACHR”)—a collaborative effort between each of the Divine Nine sororities as well as Alpha Phi Alpha and Kappa Alpha Psi fraternities. While still a civil rights lobbying organization, the ACHR also exerted pressure on the federal Executive Branch, funded the litigation of federal desegregation cases, financially supported Freedom Riders, and implemented a comprehensive initiative to educate black communities about their civil rights. It was this kind of work that inspired our writing of A Pledge with Purpose: Black Sororities and Fraternities and the Fight for Equality (NYU Press 2020).

While the ACHR disbanded in 1963, the racial uplift work of these organizations has continued. Dating back to the 1930s, philanthropy has been part of their uplift agenda. Not surprisingly, Alpha Kappa Alpha raised $1.2 million for historically Black colleges and universities in 24 hours during their inaugural Alpha Kappa Alpha Impact Day in 2018. Alpha Kappa Alpha proved that fundraising of that quantity was sustainable, raising $1 million in 24 hours again in 2019. Since Senator Harris’s nomination, there have already been fundraising efforts from Alpha Kappa Alpha and the Divine Nine members to donate to the Biden-Harris campaign the amount corresponding to the year each organization.

Though Alpha Kappa Alpha cannot endorse any political candidates as a tax-exempt organization, its direct impact stems from individual acts of support such as voting for the Biden-Harris ticket, communicating through an established informal network of contacts which reaches nation-wide, and personally fundraising by utilizing that network, as has already occurred during Senator Harris’s own presidential bid. In fact, her acknowledgment of these organizations during her acceptance speech served—knowingly or unknowingly—as an effective way to mobilize the political power of their college and alumni members. All we have to do is look back at the confirmation of Loretta Lynch as the first African American woman U.S. Attorney General and the sea of red (color of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority) behind her—literally and figuratively. This time the stakes are much higher and, we believe, the mobilization effort will be much greater.

A Pledge with PurposeGregory S. Parks is Professor at Wake Forest University School of Law. Matthew W. Hughey is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut. They are the authors of The Wrongs of the Right: Language, Race, and the Republican Party in the Age of Obama and A Pledge with Purpose: Black Sororities and Fraternities and the Fight for Equality, both available from NYU Press.


Feature image by Gage Skidmore on Flickr

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