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Alpha Phi Alpha: A Legacy of Campus Activism

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“The chief significance of Alpha Phi Alpha lies in its purpose to stimulate, develop, and cement an intelligent, trained leadership in the unending fight for freedom, equality, and fraternity. Our task is endless.” — Jewel Henry Arthur Callis, May 1946

From its inception, Alpha Phi Alpha — directly and through its membership — has played an instrumental role in the African-American’s struggle towards racial equality and social justice. One could say activism is written into the fraternity’s DNA. Notably, brothers such as Paul Robeson, Joseph Lowery, Andrew Young, Whitney Young, Martin Luther King Jr., and past General President Ozell Sutton were leading Alpha activists, among many others. The fraternity, which has a long history of advocating for civil rights, introduced the “Go-to-High School, Go-to-College” campaign in 1919.

From there, Alpha established The Committee on Public Policy, which addressed issues of race, class, and employment in the black community, and the Alpha Phi Alpha Education Foundation, which sought to tackle the educational, economic, and societal needs of black people at the 24th General Convention in St. Louis, Missouri in 1933. Since the 1960s, there has been a prominent history of Alpha funding Civil Rights activism and litigation. In one particular instance, Frank L. Stanley Jr., Alpha’s 18th general president from 1955 to 1957, general secretary James Huger, and Southern Vice President Lewis O. Swingler traveled to give moral and financial support to Brother Martin Luther King and several members of the fraternity who were indicted for leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Brother Stanley presented Brother Martin Luther King Jr. with a check for $1,000. But during the 1960s, a different type of activism was occurring alongside the Civil Rights Movement: campus activism on colleges and universities.

Black activism on college campuses is not a new initiative. When the Jewels decided to move forward with their idea to create the world’s first intercollegiate fraternity for black students in 1906, that was their form of protest, of campus activism. In 1925, W.E.B. Du Bois, who became a member of Alpha Phi Alpha through the Epsilon chapter at the University of Michigan, encouraged students at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee to protest against its conservative white president, Fayette McKenzie. McKenzie, who established an oppressive administration at Fisk, was required to suppress the free speech and militancy of any students. “I have never known an institution whose alumni are more bitter and disgusted with the present situation in this university,” Du Bois said in a speech in front of McKenzie, the trustees of the university, students, and alumni. “In Fisk today, discipline is choking freedom, threats are replacing inspiration, iron clad rules, suspicion, tale bearing are almost universal.” Du Bois’s words stuck with the students and encouraged them to wage a 10-week strike, which led to the resignation of the Fisk president.

Alphas have been in the forefront of leading or participating in black student movements on college campuses.

A few decades later, four black North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University students continued the fight for equality of college campuses. These four students courageously sat down at a whites-only lunch counter to eat at the Woolworth store at 132 South Elm Street in Greensboro, NC, sparking a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement. Known as “The Greensboro Sit-ins,” Brother Ezell Blair (Jibreel Khazan) of Beta Epsilon Chapter helped spearhead the movement. “What these young students did at the time changed the course of the Civil Rights Movement,” Herman “Skip” Mason Jr., past general president of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc, said. “Refusing to leave that Woolworth’s counter and the resulting demonstrations caused thousands in lost revenue and cast an all-important light on the situation blacks in the South faced at that time. Alpha Phi Alpha proudly joins the rest of the country in honoring the work of these American heroes with the opening of a new civil-rights museum in Greensboro.” News of the sit-in spread to other southern cities and re-energized the fight to achieve racial equality.

Inspired by the efforts of Brother Ezell Blair and the Greensboro sit-ins, and another prominent Alpha activist Martin Luther King Jr., Brother Wendell T. Foster Jr. joined 33 other Virginia Union University students in a nonviolent sit-in at the lunch counter of a Thalhimers department store in Richmond, Virginia. These students, known as the Richmond 34, were not only among the first college students in the nation to be arrested over the protests but also played an integral role in the desegregation of the city of Richmond. These were the early signs of a nationwide black student movement, an effort that launched black student unions at universities across the nation and transformed what it meant to be a black student on campus. For decades, Alphas have been in the forefront of leading or participating in black student movements and other activist efforts on college campuses.

1921 // #AlphaPhiAlpha 🤙🏾

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“We live in a period of greater social change than ever before has encompassed one generation. Every brother should take pride, and feel a corresponding responsibility, in the historic fact that Alpha Phi Alpha is the first Greek-letter college fraternity founded with social purpose. Young brothers seldom fail to catch the vision; let the brothers who, like the founders, have reached fifty, keep the vision.” –Past General President Walter Washington, at the funeral of Jewel Henry Arthur Callis

In a new age, young brothers have certainly kept that vision by utilizing new tools to carry out Alpha activism in new ways — starting movements via email, Twitter hashtags, or Facebook posts. Younger Alpha brothers on campuses across the nation have inherited a legacy of transforming history, not just simply standing idly by and witnessing it. Whether it is through grassroots organizations like the Dream Defenders, headed by Brother Phillip Agnew, or through the campus protests sparked at the University of Missouri, Alpha Phi Alpha has not lost its flame for activism. Brothers today carry the same spirit, the same passion for activism as the late Past General President Ozell Sutton, who marched with Brother Martin Luther King Jr. at the historic March on Washington D.C. in 1963 and again during the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965.

“For me, his legacy shows that if he was able to be as successful and overcome as many barriers as he did in his time, then I have no excuse,” Terrell Finner, a Fall 2013 initiate of the Gamma Nu chapter at Pennsylvania State University, said of Brother Ozell Sutton’s legacy. “Seeing other Alpha men who are such successful leaders and activists inspires me to do the same.”

Brother Finner was responsible for organizing the “Die-In” protests at Penn State University.

Die-in protests were being organized on campuses across the nation in the wake of the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, where students and supporters lay down on the ground and simulated being dead, sometimes holding signs to bring awareness to the situation. Brother William Royster, a Fall 2013 initiate of the Epsilon chapter at the University of Michigan, facilitated two campus-wide protests in response to the non-indictment of the officer who shot Eric Garner. Brother Royster says that Alpha’s legacy in the realm of activism is what encouraged him to join the fraternity, and Brother Sutton’s work still inspires him as a young brother in Alpha. “While it is discouraging that Brother Sutton passed away, his legacy serves as a catalyst for inspiring a generation to continue to work tirelessly to improve our communities,” Brother Royster said. “We can honor his legacy best by following in his footsteps.”

Although Brother Ozell Sutton was the general president of this fraternity from 1981 to 1984, before most undergraduate brothers were even born, his legacy still resonates. “Brother Sutton exists as an example of an Alpha man who reached great heights both fraternally and personally, and that should inspire anyone,” said Brother Desmond Jones, a Spring 2014 initiate of the Rho Beta chapter at Portland State University. “He translated the work of Alpha to his work in the Civil Rights Movement, a skill that many of us are still learning. He is also another reason Alpha has become synonymous with civil rights and making change, something which should not be taken lightly or glanced over. In his 90 years, Ozell Sutton showed exactly what ‘limitlessness’ means. That is something I hope to do as well.”

If you’re not able to vocalize hurt and pain to the people with privilege..then there’s no way to see change.”Payton Head, University of Missouri

Brother Jones was able to address his university’s president at the Student Speak Out event on campus, which aimed to give students of color a safe space to speak on issues of race at the university in 2015. While addressing the lack of space for black students on campus, the emergence of a white student union, and the overall lack of empathy shown to students of color, Brother Jones was able to confirm with the university president that “[students] will get the space [for students of color]. I’ll make it happen.”

Last year, in one of the most notable forms of campus activism in recent memory, student body president and initiate of the Zeta Alpha chapter at the University of Missouri Payton Head, along with other students, organized a series of demonstrations and protests, including a standoff during the homecoming parade in October. These protests, a hunger strike led by one student, and a boycott by Mizzou football players, which included another member of the Zeta Alpha chapter, starting safety Anthony Sherrils, ultimately led to the resignation of former university President Tim Wolfe and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin. Alpha Phi Alpha brothers and members of Mizzou’s Black Men Initiative camped out in support of the hunger strike. Brother Head was also responsible for drafting and signing the letter that the Missouri Students Association wrote to the University of Missouri System Board of Curators. “Of course there’s a lot of hurt and pain that’s associated with living in a world that’s not created for you,” Brother Head told The Maneater, a campus newspaper at Mizzou. “But at the same time, if you’re not able to vocalize that to the people with privilege, who can help change that world, who have the institutional privilege to create change, then there’s no way to see change.”

The protests at the University of Missouri launched various protests in solidarity at multiple college campuses across the nation, including a walk-out protest at Eastern Michigan University. Students banded together, left their classrooms at the same time, and marched through campus buildings. Brother Demajae Muray, a Fall 2014 initiate of the Epsilon Eta chapter at Eastern Michigan University, said that the march was about “taking a stand for what you believe in.”

“College chapters have always played an important role in civil rights advocacy,” said Brother Rafael Ramirez, a 2014 initiate of the Eta chapter at Columbia University. “Chapters of Alpha represent a collection of talented, driven young men of color whom are passionate about serving and advocating for their communities. The work that I have been privileged to be able to do through my chapter, and the work that brothers around the country have been able to do through their respective chapters, is a direct continuation of the legacy set by all the brothers that have come before us.”

Brother Ramirez was responsible for organizing the #BoycottBlackFriday March and rally in New York City that began at Herald Square and ended in Times Square. Brother Ramirez helped create and manage the corresponding Facebook event page that engaged over 200,000 people across North America. College days swiftly pass, but Alpha’s undergraduate brothers are using their time in college to continue the legacy of activism that is ingrained in our fraternity’s — and its members’ — DNA.

In 2013, at a leadership gathering, past General President Ozell Sutton made the following remarks: “A man has nothing to say about when he is born, where he is born, to whom he is born, or even what color he is born…. He may have nothing to say about when he dies, where he dies, or how he dies.”

But the years in between, Sutton said, “belong to him and he has everything to say about what happens in that space.” It is up to us to what we decide to do within that space.

This article was written by Philip Lewis and originally appeared on mystudentvoices.com.

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Activism

20 Powerful Quotes From the Legendary Dick Gregory

  1. I never learned hate at home, or shame. I had to go to school for that.
  2. I never believed in Santa Claus because I knew no white dude would come into my neighborhood after dark.
  3. Hell hath no fury like a liberal scorned.
  4. I am really enjoying the new Martin Luther King Jr stamp – just think about all those white bigots, licking the backside of a black man.
  5. Political promises are much like marriage vows. They are made at the beginning of the relationship between candidate and voter, but are quickly forgotten.
  6. In most places in the country, voting is looked upon as a right and a duty, but in Chicago it’s a sport.
  7. Just being a Negro doesn’t qualify you to understand the race situation any more than being sick makes you an expert on medicine.
  8. When you have a good mother and no father, God kind of sits in. It’s not enough, but it helps.
  9. And we love to dance, especially that new one called the Civil War Twist. The Northern part of you stands still while the Southern part tries to secede.
  10. I wouldn’t mind paying taxes – if I knew they were going to a friendly country.
  11. Revolution ain’t nothing but an extent of evolution; Evolution is a fact of nature. So when old folks tell me that they don’t understand hip hop and the music is too loud, well I guess it means you’re not supposed to be in there.
  12. Because I’m a civil rights activist, I am also an animal rights activist. Animals and humans suffer and die alike. Violence causes the same pain, the same spilling of blood, the same stench of death, the same arrogant, cruel and vicious taking of life. We shouldn’t be a part of it.
  13. America will tolerate the taking of a human life without giving it a second thought. But don’t misuse a household pet.
  14. I waited at the counter of a white restaurant for eleven years. When they finally integrated, they didn’t have what I wanted.
  15. Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant, and this white waitress came up to me and said: ‘We don’t serve colored people here.’ I said: ‘that’s all right, I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.’
  16. When you’ve got something really good, you don’t have to force it on people. They will steal it!
  17. If they took all the drugs, nicotine, alcohol and caffeine off the market for six days, they’d have to bring out the tanks to control you.
  18. I personally would say that the quickest way to wipe out a group of people is to put them on a soul food diet. One of the tragedies is that the very folks in the black community who are most sophisticated in terms of the political realities in this country are nonetheless advocates of “soul food.” They will lay down a heavy rap on genocide in America with regard to black folks, then walk into a soul food restaurant and help the genocide along.
  19. The only good thing about the good old days is they’re gone.
  20. If democracy is such a good thing, let’s have more of it.

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Activism

How Kappa Alpha Psi Helped Stop Richard Spencer’s White Nationalist Group From Speaking at Michigan State

A SPLC listed white nationalist group by the name of The National Policy Institute requested to reserve space for a speaker at Michigan State University and the brothers of Kappa Alpha Psi were not having it.

On Wednesday, Michigan State University President Lou Anna K. Simon released a statement saying The National Policy Institute wants to have a speaker on campus, and that MSU was “reviewing the request closely in light of the deplorable violence in Charlottesville, Va. last weekend.

While the statement didn’t say who the group wanted to have speak, the Lansing State Journal notes that Richard Spencer, the high-profile white supremacist who has advocated for a white homeland for a “dispossessed white race” and called for “peaceful ethnic cleansing” to halt the “deconstruction” of European culture, is president and director of the The National Policy Institute.

The brothers of the Northern Province and specifically the Delta Pi Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi issued a letter to the Michigan State University President urging her to deny The National Policy Institute’s request.

“We urge you in the strongest terms to DENY the request for the white nationalist group to speak on our beloved campus. We recognize that Michigan State University is a public institution and that “free speech” is a right of all Americans. However, after the most recent incidents at the University of Virginia, the saftey of our students, faculty and staff are far more important. We also must realize that “free speech” must be responsible. Spreading a message of hate, bigotry and anti-Semitism is not healthy for the campus of Michigan State University, nor our country, nor our world.”

They followed by stating that the Kappas would be there in numbers to support the university president’s denial of the request.

“We are proud to be holding our annual leadership conference September 15-16, 2017 at the James B. Henry Center for Executive Development on your campus. We will have over 200 Kappa Men from Michigan, N.W. Ohio and Western NY visiting the campus on that weekend. Please know that the more than 5,000 members of the Northern Province of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. are ready to stand with you and support you in denying this request.”

Other groups around campus and the community also issued their concern and this was part of a huge local outcry.

In a statement released Thursday afternoon, the university said it denied the request.

“This decision was made due to significant concerns about public safety in the wake of the tragic violence in Charlottesville last weekend,” the statement said. “While we remain firm in our commitment to freedom of expression, our first obligation is to the safety and security of our students and our community.”

We at Watch The Yard would like to commend these Kappas on standing up and speaking out. We believe that this letter can be used as an example for all D9 undergrad and graduate chapters when concerned about white supremacist at their schools or in their communities.

Read the full letter below:

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Activism

Alpha Phi Alpha Lawmaker Files Legislation to Remove All Confederate Monuments From Florida Public Property

Photo Credit: twitter.com/ShevrinJones

Florida Representative Shevrin Jones (D-West Park) a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. says he will file legislation to immediately remove all Confederate statues, signs and names from public property in Florida.

“William Faulkner once stated that ‘The past is never dead,’ but I’m here to tell you that it can damn well be buried,” the 33-year-old lawmaker said in a statement that he released this week.

“Rather than being held up as figures of celebration, it is past time we relegate these symbols of oppression and bigotry to the halls of museums where their proper context can be articulated. As one of the most proudly diverse states in our nation, Florida needs to show our citizens that we value everyone equally and will not be divided by the voices of bigotry and racism. Let’s move forward, not continue to look back, ” he stated.

While removing all of the Confederate statues, signs, and names from public property in Florida seems like a mammoth task.  Jones has succeeded at doing this on a smaller scale by being part of the successful fight to rename three streets in Hollywood, Florida, that were named after Confederate generals, Gen. Robert E. Lee, who led the Confederate Army during the Civil War, Gen. John B. Hood, a division commander at the Battle of Antietam, and Nathan Bedford Forrest, a lieutenant general said to be the first Grand Wizard of the KKK.

According to the statement he released, the vote will take place on August 30th.

Rep. Jones is a Democratic member of the Florida House of Representatives, representing the 101st District, which includes southeastern Broward County. Rep. Jones is a graduate of Florida A&M University and a proud member of Alpha Phi Alpha.

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