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The Overlooked Role of Black Greek Organizations

Illustration: Haley Cleary

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Illustration: Haley Cleary

A screech. 

That’s what Washington Post reporter Chelsea Janes thought she heard at a book event for thenSen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) in 2019. 

In reality, she heard a “skee-wee”—the call members of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. like me use to greet each other, celebrate, or simply make our presence known. That’s what the audience did when Harris mentioned during the event that she pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha—the first Black Greek-letter sorority founded in 1908—when she was a student at Howard University. 

I can’t say I’m surprised Janes didn’t recognize the call. Nearly 20 million people are enrolled in college in the United States, most don’t enter the Greek system, and even though some Black Greek-letter organizations (BGLOs) have existed for over 100 years, they still reside under an even greater cloud of mystery to society at large. 

But they might not if teaching Black history was higher on the country’s priority list. 

For instance: if you didn’t know that three Black women—Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson—were the brains behind launching John Glenn into orbit in 1962, well, neither did I, until Hidden Figures hit theaters in 2016. I also learned that those women, like Harris, were Alpha Kappa Alpha members. But if an organization helps shape some of the nation’s leading scientists and elected officials, it shouldn’t be so obscure to so many people. Not just because it, and its members, deserve recognition, but because the journalists, academics, activists, and political strategists seeking to understand or improve the world will underperform if they’re blind to key facets of America’s intellectual and political landscape.

When Joe Biden announced that Harris would be his running mate back in 2020, it prompted articles explaining “why [people are] sending the Biden-Harris campaign $19.08?” and Harris’ “secret weapon.” A photo of sorority women “stroll[ing] to the polls” went viral. One headline blared “proud sorority sisters get to work.” 

The latter headline evoked a familiar image of Greek organizations supporting their brothers and sisters when called upon—an image that misses something important: Alpha Kappa Alpha and other Black sororities and fraternities are fully engaged, even when our members aren’t candidates for high office.

Created at a time when campus organization memberships excluded Black students and professionals, BGLOs have served as crucial resources for Black Americans in civic life since the early 20th century. As nonprofits, they cannot and do not endorse political candidates, but these nine organizations collectively referred to as the “Divine Nine” are no strangers to advocating for change.

Alpha Kappa Alpha pushed anti-lynching legislation in 1921 and created the first congressional lobby for a racial minority group’s civil rights in 1938. Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. played a critical role in the Women’s Suffrage March in 1913, ensuring women’s right to vote. Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., the first Black greek-letter fraternity, launched a voter-education program called “A Voteless People is a Hopeless People,” way back in the 1930s when Black citizens faced extraordinary voter suppression efforts. The list goes on. 

Numerous trailblazing politicians before Harris were members of the Divine Nine, too. Late congressman and civil-rights icon John Lewis was a member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. Running as a Democrat, Delta Sigma Theta member Shirley Chisholm was the first Black woman to seek the presidential nomination of a major political party. House Majority Whip James Clyburn is a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. Thurgood Marshall, the first Black U.S. Supreme Court justice, was a proud member of Alpha Phi Alpha, as is Raphael Warnock, the first Black Senator from Georgia.

Despite the immense contributions BGLO members have made throughout history, mainstream media and society have consistently ignored us. They have referred to our hand signs as “gang symbols,”  confused our colors with gang colors, referred to our calls as “screech[es],” when the simple and uplifting truth would have been easy to Google. 

The life-long commitment BGLO members have made to putting in work even when we are misunderstood and ignored is part of the reason Democrats can now say they have control of the White House, House, and Senate. Are Black sorority and fraternity members solely responsible for these wins? Or course not. Organizers across the country, voters who flipped Georgia blue, Trump’s bungled COVID-19 response, and a million other factors all played a role. 

But research shows that communities of color were key to Biden’s victory, which was famously narrow in the decisive states. Almost two-million members are spread across the Divine Nine, and we are already organized and conceiving creative new ways to get people to the polls and raise money

Everyone who works a political beat understands the role Black churches play in Democratic politics and organizing. It’s a requirement of the job. The term “souls to the polls” is instantly recognizable to journalists, activists, and strategists of all stripes. They should be just as familiar with the BGLO system that helped propel Harris to the vice presidency. Her ascent is proof of the power of our contributions, and you can’t fully understand American public life if you don’t know that.