It was a bit of a shock when the news surfaced that two of our historic Black Greek letter organizations, Delta Sigma Theta and Alpha Kappa Alpha, had instructed their members to refrain from wearing paraphernalia when participating in protests against police violence. These venerable sororities have a storied history; steeped in the African-American experience and struggle for equal rights. Each in their own right have been active voices in the fight for gender and racial equality, and have a proud tradition of uplifting young women who pledge their allegiance to the ideals of the respective organizations. And despite the public imagery of step shows and pledging, these organizations have a very admirable record of community service.
This is why the instructions by the leadership of the Deltas and AKAs, since rescinded by Alpha Kappa Alpha, to their members on appropriate behavior at public demonstrations are all the more disappointing against the backdrop of history. From what I gather the rationale was based on concerns over possible ‘brand’ infringement and liability of the organizations in the event a protest devolved into violence or some other illegal activity. On face value the concerns over brand protection seem plausible but only if there is a “corporate” interest at stake. However, it is a betrayal of history to assume such a corporate posture when the very founding of both of these great organizations was contrary to the status quo. It begs the question – what is the brand? It certainly isn’t the Greek letters that identify Delta Sigma Theta and Alpha Kappa Alpha; the symbolic representations the leadership of these two organizations deemed a priority to protect.
The brand is Black womanhood; intelligent, strong and culturally conscious. And what better way to express concern over the crisis of police violence than to represent one’s self as a member of an organization aligned with a campaign for justice? Moreover, police violence is not just directed at Black men. There are scores of cases in which Black women are victimized, as direct targets of police brutality and as mothers, children and wives of men subjected to violence. If there was ever a moment for these sororities to stand collectively, the time is now.
It also seems rather disingenuous to suggest that the political activity of members would somehow make the organization liable for protest mishaps; particularly at events not sponsored by them. There are in this country hundreds of protests daily and I have yet to hear of an organization being held liable simply because its members were in attendance, wearing attire that identified their membership. I take this claim as a red herring, used to intimidate members into surrendering their organizational identity when hoisting the protest sign.
There were also claims that by engaging in protests, members of Delta Sigma Theta and Alpha Kappa Alpha would jeopardize their organization’s not-for-profit status. Not true. These organizations can legally engage in demonstrations and sponsor events that address matters of public policy. What they cannot do is cross the partisan line and endorse candidates for elective office. However, they can be political in the universal sense. Their very founding was political and they exist in the context of a nation defined by politics. To deny members their right to free expression is to neutralize the organization. The power of these organizations rests in its members. We need more not less political engagement by our organizations.
The renewed activism of the Millennials offers the chance for Black institutions to play a more meaningful role in the pursuit of justice and the reconciling of opportunity in America. This is true of our historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), churches and mosques, and sororities and fraternities. We particularly need our Black Greek letter organizations, so deeply embedded in the Black community and engaged with Black youth, to be front and center; in protest and programmatically. The collective outcry to systemic oppression must be evident in our organizations and these groups must use their organizational structures to the benefit of the struggle. The existence of a well-defined structure, with a presence in local communities throughout the nation, and populated with experts across disciplines is an asset that must be utilized in this campaign to affirm that #BlackLivesMatter. From a systems perspective, these are the very institutions that are strategically situated to confront and reform the criminal justice system on a state and local level.
The Greek letters are meaningless if they overshadow and undermine the Black ascendancy these organizations purport to represent.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.