Donna M. Owens takes a look at the changing landscape of Civil Rights in America and considers the role Black sororities play in today’s movement.
Danielle Green was at work in Washington, D.C., when Baltimore erupted in protests and riots on April 27 just hours after the funeral of Freddie Gray. The 25-year-old Black man had died on April 19, one week after being arrested by Baltimore police and sustaining fatal spinal cord injuries. “I was getting calls and texts from family and friends about the rioting,” recalls Green, 41, a public school administrator who lives in Baltimore. “Once I heard what was happening, my mind immediately went to support efforts.”
As Maryland state director of Zeta Phi Beta, Green galvanized fellow sorority sisters to assist the local community. “We attended a town hall meeting; took part in a peace rally led by religious leaders; and donated toiletries to the Gilmor Homes housing project, where Freddie Gray lived,” says Green. “It felt like we were doing service in line with the founding ideals and principles of our organization.”
Indeed African-American sororities have a storied history of activism in America. In the early 1900’s, amid an endemic culture of racism and segregation, Black women first formed Alpha Kappa Alpha and then Delta Sigma Theta on the campus of Howard University to promote education, uplift communities and engage in philanthropy. These sororities—along with Zeta Phi Beta and Sigma Gamma Rho, which were established later— have used service as a means to mold America’s social and civil rights landscape. “Black sororities have been involved in the push for women’s suffrage, and they’ve launched rural schools and health initiatives for the poor,” says Clara Small, a professor emeritus of history at Salisbury University in Maryland. “They also registered voters,marched and went to jail while fighting for freedom in the Civil Rights Movement.”
Today, as the Black Lives Matter movement spreads across the U.S., members of the nation’s nine historically Black Greek- letter organizations (four sororities and five fraternities) are among those participating in marches, rallies, occupations, die-ins and demonstrations. Yet there has been dissension within some of these groups about how best to respond to the modern-day civil rights crisis that’s unfolding.
Controversy sprang up last December at the height of the protests against police brutality when several of the sororities—AKA, DST and SGRho—issued directives that forbade members from wearing official paraphernalia while engaging in civil disobedience. This perceived distancing from the major social justice issue of our time didn’t go over well with some members, particularly millennials, who hotly debated the matter on social media.
“I wanted my organization to take a clear-cut stance on police brutality and was disappointed when that didn’t happen,” says Charlene Carruthers, 29, a Delta in Chicago who heads Black Youth Project 100, a group of people from across the nation who banded together after Trayvon Martin was gunned down in 2012. Its activism continued in earnest following the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent deaths of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley and others. “I joined Delta because of our history of social and political action. Those issues remain extremely important to me,” she says.
Since getting pushback, SGRho has revised its position. “Many of our members challenged us, and we heard them loud and clear,” said Bonita M. Herring, international president of Sigma Gamma Rho. Herring explained the initial ban as “a liability issue,” adding that “if someone is wearing their colors, it looks as if they are speaking for the entire sorority. We are a sisterhood, but the reality is, there is also a business to protect.” Alpha Kappa Alpha similarly changed course.
According to a statement later released by the organization, members may wear paraphernalia during peaceful protests. Asked to explain its initial paraphernalia ban, Paulette C. Walker, the national president of Delta Sigma Theta, provided ESSENCE with a writ- ten statement that read in part, “We have always [supported] and still continue to support every member’s interest and right to participate in organized nonviolent activities and marches that denounce social injustices in our communities.”
Rasheed Ali Cromwell, a Washington, D.C. based attorney and a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, believes the current movement requires a concerted and aggressive response. “I’d like to see our organizations collectively develop a national social justice committee that includes an emergency response team,” says Cromwell, who conceived an educational series of workshops and college curricula called The Miseducation of the Black Greek Xperience! Undergraduate chapters should be utilized more, he adds, because “they can quickly mobilize and engage at the grassroots level. Training should be intergenerational, with grad chapters teaching social justice leadership development to younger members and undergrads providing the elders with tips on utilizing social media. We all have to work together. This is what our founders envisioned. This is who we are.”
After Gray’s death, members of the four sororities got to work in Baltimore. For instance, Sigma Gamma Rho members helped with cleanup at Mondawmin Mall, where the youth uprising began. Delta’s local alumnae chapter collected food and toiletries for seniors in the Penn North neighborhood who were affected by the looting of their local CVS Pharmacy. Area AKA members passed out snacks and beverages to kids during the school closings. And Zeta Phi Beta undergrads from Morgan State University helped clear debris on the streets after the unrest.
“Having organized and participated in solidarity marches, I have seen women in sororities take action,” says Janaye Ingram, 36, an AKA who serves as national executive director of the National Action Network, founded by Rev. Al Sharpton. Knyra Ratcliff, 21, a Troy, Alabama, college student who holds a leader- ship position with SGRho, has taken part in sorority forums designed to engage law enforcement. “We’re trying to channel the anger into a proactive approach and positive dialogue with police,” she says.
Furthermore, Zeta Phi Beta has developed an initiative called Get Engaged. “We have grave concern for the sense- less killing of Black men, women and children, and other injustices that plague our community,” says Mary Breaux Wright, the sorority’s international president. Get Engaged, which is being implemented in collaboration with the NAACP, provides Zeta chapters with a framework to foster citizen engagement and strengthen relationships among the community, elected officials, law enforcement and educators.
Community collaboration is key to effective change, says Delilah Berkley, 24, a Delta who lives in Atlanta. “I’ve been participating in peaceful protests, rallies, die-ins and town halls to speak up for what is right,” she says. “I am extremely passionate about getting my peers involved in stepping up to the plate just as Dr. King did when he was younger. We have to be leaders.”
Donna M. Owens is a Baltimore journalist specializing in politics and health. She is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha.
This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of ESSENCE magazine, on newsstands June 12!