CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Recent protests against the police killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown have created a conundrum for the nation’s black fraternities and sororities: to remain relevant in the black community they need to be involved, but protect their reputations if demonstrations go awry.
The competing pressures were exemplified last weekend when black Greek members and alumni participated in lay down protests across the country and two sororities asked their members not to wear their letters during the demonstrations so as not to embarrass them.
Many of the nine historically Black Greek organizations – known collectively as “The Divine Nine” – were born out of the nation’s racial conflict. Founded on college campuses in the early 1900s when black students faced racial prejudice and exclusion that barred them from already existing fraternities and sororities, a century later they are wrestling with their role in the most recent protests.
There was a time when the black Greek organizations were in the forefront of the civil rights struggles, but those days have faded into memory, said Gregory Parks, an assistant professor at the Wake Forest University School of Law and a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.
“These organizations, whether you’re talking about the fraternities or sororities, do indeed have a direct or indirect impact on African-Americans’ quest for social equality throughout the 20th century,” Parks said. But recently “these organizations’ voices have been absent in assertive fashion around racial justice and social equality.”
The sororities’ recent directive followed a picture on the front of the Dallas Morning News showing a woman wearing a Delta Sigma Theta top during one of the protests following grand jury decisions not to indict police officers in the killings of Brown and Garner. Standing behind the woman is an officer preparing to take her into custody.
“Feel free to wear our sorority colors, but REFRAIN from wearing Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. letters and/or symbols as our policy outlines,” the sorority said after the photo was published.
Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority also told its members they could wear the sorority’s colors but nothing identifying them as members.
The picture and directives sparked fiery commentary on social media. Many said black Greek organizations should be front and center during the protests and not worry about image. Some called for abject defiance with the call.
“I’ve always been extremely proud that Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. was born in protest and stood on not only the front lines of the Women’s Suffrage Parade in 1913, but the March on Washington in 1963,” said Tamura Lomax, a visiting assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and a member of the sorority, in an email sent to TheRoot.com. “While some sorors have decided to toe the party line and not wear paraphernalia while protesting, many others have decided to fall in line with and honor the ancestors by doing the opposite.”
On Thursday, Alpha Kappa Alpha, reversed course.
“It appears the request to refrain from wearing the sorority’s letters has become a distraction and a distortion of the sorority’s position on these issues that is diverting attention and effort away from the broader fight to secure social justice and reform,” said a letter from the sorority.
Alpha Kappa Alpha declined further comment, and Delta Sigma Theta didn’t respond to telephone calls seeking additional information.
Black fraternities like Omega Psi Phi, Alpha Phi Alpha and Phi Beta Sigma and sororities Zeta Phi Beta and Sigma Gamma Rho called on members to join the police protests and issued no directives about wearing their Greek letters.
Joyce Ladner, an author, former sociology professor and an interim president of Howard University in Washington, said leaders of her Delta Sigma Theta sorority demonstrated a conservatism at odds with the days when the group was in the vanguard of protests and helping to get their sisters out of jail.
“The leadership needs to get with it because these issues are going to be here for a while,” Ladner said. “If White medical students can stage (die-ins) and law students can do the same, I just find it quite, quite regrettable that our sorority has chosen not to.”
Vicki Moore, a Delta member from Charlotte, said she supports the movement, but would abide by the official sorority line if she joins a protest.
“It would be great for us to be seen out there unified, showing our symbols, saying that we’re out there supporting these causes,” she said. “But if that is a directive coming from national headquarters, I’m not going to be the one to buck that.”