The rise of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity

Nation's first black fraternity built on social purpose and social action


This is an occasional AJC Sepia series that looks at black Greek letter organizations

Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity did not come into existence in a vacuum on December 4, 1906.

Rather, a number of factors gave rise to it. Elements of the African American church, African American benevolent and secret societies, collegiate literary societies and historically white fraternities, the experience of racial isolation on an Ivy League college campus, and, too, the broader cultural milieu at the turn of the Twentieth Century, all provided institutional and cultural context for the Fraternity’s birth. Noted historian and General President Dr. Rayford Logan described this cultural context as “The Nadir,” or low-point, of American race relations. Jewel (Fraternity founder) Dr. Henry Arthur Callis put is thusly: “Alpha Phi Alpha was born in the shadows of slavery and on the lap of disenfranchisement.”

Elsewhere, he noted, “society offered us narrowly circumscribed opportunity and no security. Out of our need, our fraternity brought social purpose and social action.”

The Early Years: 1906 – 1946

Indeed, as Jewel Callis indicated, part of his rationale for founding the Fraternity was the inspiration that he drew from the meeting of the Niagara Conference—the precursor of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)—in 1905. In essence, he wanted to create an organization—a body of men—who would serve as leaders of the race, a point affirmed by the Fraternity’s second General President, Dr. Roscoe C. Giles.

Not surprisingly, Alpha Phi Alpha has a rich history of involvement in African American’s advancement and civil rights issues. Through its own programs, litigation, financial support and collaboration with other organizations, and the work of individual members, the Fraternity influenced public policy and effectuated change in the fight for African American civil rights and social justice.

Alpha Phi Alpha has created programs and provided vocal declarations as a means to advocate for social change, influence public policy, and achieve African American equality. Rayford W. Logan, elected Alpha Phi Alpha’s Director of Education in 1933, created the “Education for Citizenship” campaign (later called “A Voteless People is a Hopeless People”). One of the Fraternity’s national programs, this initiative aided in voter education among African Americans, while expanding the Fraternity’s influence in the African American community. Through public meetings, radio promotions, plays, pageants, and signage, the Fraternity worked to increase understanding of voting rights and expand voter registration.

Over the years, the Fraternity established a number of committees and commissions to directly do the work of social justice on behalf of the organization. During the 1920 General Convention, the Fraternity established a Commission of Graduate Work and Public Affairs, in part to focus on issues confronting African Americans. In part, its responsibility was also to execute the “Go-to-High School, Go-to-College” campaign.

In 1932, the Fraternity established a Committee on Public Policy that would focus on national issues that affected African Americans. In 1934, the Committee on Public Policy focused its efforts on desegregation. In 1937, the Fraternity’s Committee on Public Opinion focused on equalizing educational opportunities for African Americans via amendment to the Harrison-Black-Fletcher Bill.

A Committee on Discrimination was created in 1940 in response to a specific instance of discrimination experienced by several Alpha brothers at a Kansas City restaurant. In 1945, the Fraternity’s Committee on Public Opinion focused its efforts on securing the passage of the Fair Employment Practices Act in the United States Senate.

Alpha Phi Alpha supported anti-discrimination litigation for both fraternity members and non-members as part of the fight for civil rights of all African Americans. For example, as an organization, Alpha Phi Alpha financed Donald Murray’s lawsuit for admission to the University of Maryland Law School in 1935. As individual members of Alpha Phi Alpha, Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall represented Murray in Murray v. The University of Maryland, which resulted in Murray’s law school admission. Among the many cases he argued, Belford V. Lawson (General President from 1946-1951), then General Counsel, litigated New Negro Alliance v. Sanitary Grocery, Co.; which involved Sanitary Grocery Company, Inc.’s suit against the New Negro Alliance in an attempt to restrain the defendants and their agents from picketing plaintiff’s stores and engaging in other activities injurious to its business, to the United States Supreme Court level in 1938. The Supreme Court reversed and remanded the lower court’s injunction against the New Negro Alliance.

 

The Civil Rights Movement: 1947 – 1966

 

Between the 1940s and 1960s, the Fraternity’s committees continued to work for social justice. In light of the United States Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board decision, General President A. Maceo Smith appointed a Special Committee on Human Relations to report at the General Convention in Miami, Florida. The following year, the Fraternity gave $5,000 to the NAACP’s efforts around desegregation in Mississippi. As the Fraternity moved toward the 1955 General Convention, it decided to build on its work during the Miami General Convention themed “Desegregation The Mode—Total Integration the Goal.”

By the Golden Anniversary General Convention in 1956, the Committee on Human Rights had become the Committee on Human Rights and Public Policy. At the General Convention, Charles H. Wesley’s report detailed progress in the areas of civil rights, employment, housing, and integration, among other things. Two years later, in 1958, the Committee on Public Policy and Program made an incisive statement in its report—that the Fraternity could neither be effective in the area of public policy nor return to its “former preeminent position” without “critical self-appraisal.” As a result, General President Myles Paige focused some of the work of his administration on strengthening the Fraternity overall in order to strengthen its social justice work. 

By the General Convention in 1963, the Committee on Human Rights and Public Policy had become Committee on Human Rights and Civil Rights. At the General Convention, the committee stressed the need for Alpha participation in the March on Washington. Many of the convention activities focused on Civil Rights issues. It was recommended that each chapter become a Life Member of the NAACP and that the Fraternity support other Civil Rights organizations.

Alpha Phi Alpha brothers also supported individual Alpha members who suffered discrimination. These included the cases of Lloyd L. Gaines, Lyman T. Johnson, and Herman M. Sweatt. In the 1938 Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada case, Charles Hamilton Houston, assisted by fellow Alpha member Sidney R. Redmond, prevailed when the Supreme Court ruled the University of Missouri–Columbia must admit Gaines into its law school. Alpha member Lyman T. Johnson, with the help of Thurgood Marshall and Robert Carter, desegregated the University of Kentucky’s graduate school in 1949 in the case Johnson v. Board of Trustees of University of Kentucky. In the 1950 Sweatt v. Painter case, Marshall represented Sweatt before the United States Supreme Court; the Court held that the University of Texas’s attempt to keep African American students out of the law school by creating a law school specifically for African American students was unconstitutional.

In support of the Civil Rights Movement, Alpha Phi Alpha worked with and provided financial support to organizations and individuals. Alpha collaborated with the NAACP and the New Negro Alliance to assist in litigation to end segregation. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the Fraternity gave regular, philanthropic support to organizations like the American Council on Human Rights, the NAACP, and civil rights organizations in response to Republican Party presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s opposition to the Civil Rights Bill. The Fraternity also supported individual members, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King thanked the Fraternity several times for what he called the “dollars of freedom” donated over time to the movement. He referred to the contributions by the Fraternity as both moral and financial. The Fraternity’s support was not just limited to him as a brother, as Alpha Phi Alpha annually gave to the organization King lead—the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Similarly, Alpha Phi Alpha’s involvement with the National Urban League dated back to the very early iterations of the organization, founded in 1910. Alpha member Dr. George Edmund Haynes, a sociologist, served as the first Executive Secretary and played a key role in getting the organization, then titled the “Committee on Urban Conditions Among Negroes,” off the ground. Under Haynes leadership, the Urban League addressed issues facing the great numbers of African Americans who moved into the urban centers of America in the early decades of the Twentieth Century. Haynes was succeeded by one of the founders of the Alpha Phi Alpha, Jewel Eugene Kinckle Jones in 1918. Over the years, a total of seven members of the Fraternity led (or are leading) the Urban League including: Lester Blackwell Granger (1941-1961), Whitney Moore Young, Jr. (1961-1971), Hugh Bernard Price (1994-2002), Milton James Little, Jr. (2003-2003), and currently Mark Haydel Morial (2003-Present).

            Between 1948 and 1956, Alpha Phi Alpha was a member of the American Council on Human Rights (ACHR)—an initiative by the Fraternity, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta, Kappa Alpha Psi, Zeta Phi Beta, and Sigma Gamma Rho. The purpose of the ACHR was to expand civil rights, eliminate racial discrimination, and protest government policies toward African Americans. These goals were accomplished primarily by lobbying Congress and the Federal government to enact legislation that protected and improved African American civil rights, as well as fighting legislation that would harm those goals. Member activities included letter-writing campaigns and other forms of pressure on congressmen and senators, testimony before Congress, meeting with government officials, and lawsuits. The ACHR advocated legislation to ban employment discrimination, protect the right to vote, abolish the poll tax, ban racial segregation in interstate travel, and make lynching a federal crime. The ACHR also used education as a principal mean to effect civil rights change. For example, the ACHR conducted a series of workshops that educated over 500 college students on voting rights, discrimination in employment and housing, and desegregation issues within schools. In 1949, the ACHR and twenty other organizations, including Alpha Phi Alpha, met to form the Joint Committee on Civil Rights in an effort to create greater accord between the various legislative goals and lobbying efforts of the different organizations. Alpha’s work with other organizations and financial support helped in the fight for improved civil rights and equality.

Alpha Phi Alpha members have individually assumed their own role in the fight for equality and African American civil rights. Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, and Belford V. Lawson were civil rights lawyers who fought to end discrimination through litigation. Houston served as special counsel for the NAACP, and Marshall, working for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, was the lead attorney in the 1954 case of Brown v. Topeka Board of Education. Paul Robeson and Dick Gregory used their celebrity status as entertainers to communicate and publicize the harms of discrimination and racism. As a member of Congress, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. pushed for and worked on legislation enhancing and protecting African American rights.

It is the collective work of Alpha Phi Alpha, as an organization, and its members that helped secure civil rights for African Americans. History reveals that the Fraternity’s commitment to this kind of work was largely a reflection of the successive General Presidents’ commitment to the clear ideals laid down by the Fraternity’s founders. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, however, the Fraternity’s footprint in the area of civil rights—like many organizations—waned. The question, in this era, is whether the Fraternity will boldly lead like it did in decades past, especially at this crucial juncture in American history.

Gregory S. Parks, JD, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Law at Wake Forest University School of Law. He is the coeditor, with Stefan M. Bradley, of "Alpha Phi Alpha: A Legacy of Greatness, The Demands of Transcendence" (2011). He is currently authoring a book, with Matthew W. Hughey, on African American fraternities and sororities and the Civil Rights Movement.



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