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‘Greek’ Pride and Pain

 ‘Greek’ Pride and Pain

During the late 1960s and the Vietnam War era, the Black fraternity and sorority movement suffered a loss of prestige because many young African Americans viewed them as too traditional and middle class to be “cool.” However, the success of affirmative action and academic outreach programs brought an unprecedented number of Black students to traditionally White campuses in the mid-1980s and 1990s.  Many of these young men and women embraced Black Greek Letter Organizations (BGLOs) as a welcome source of social support.
In addition, many of the children of the brothers and sisters who had pledged BGLOs at historically Black instituitons (HBCUs) in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s arrived on campuses across the nation and formed a second, (or even third or fourth) generation of  “legacies” who sought to join BGLOs, which had now become family traditions.
The last 15 years, have seen individual Black Greeks achieve their greatest triumphs since Alpha member Thurgood Marshall won the famous 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, which outlawed segregation in public schools.  Omega ‘brother’ Doug Wilder, became the Black governor of Virginia. Two Alphas, David Dinkins and Willie Brown respectively became the first Black mayors of New York City and San Francisco. And Johnny Cochran, a Kappa, won the “trial of the decade” in the O.J. Simpson case.
During this same period, Carol Moseley-Braun  (D- Ill.), a Delta, became the first African-American woman elected to the U.S. Senate, AKA soror Mae C. Jemison became the first Black woman astronaut, and her ‘sister’ soror, Hazel O’Leary, became the U.S. Secretary of Energy.
Unfortunately, these same years that have seen the explosive growth of BGLOs, became a double-edged sword bringing almost as many problems as opportunities for the organizations as a whole. Chapters expanded faster than the national offices’ ability to supervise them and America’s youth culture became more aggressive and violent. At the same time, most campus and state authorities became much less tolerant of the alcohol abuse, sexism, and hazing traditionally associated with fraternity life.
Because the BGLOs tradition of  “hard pledging” has always contained elements considered hazing, Black Issues has sadly watched and reported as the BGLOs most important ritual has turned into their greatest legal, financial, and even spiritual liability.

Even though the BGLOs claimed to have banned hazing in the 1940s and ‘50s hard pledging continued to produce injuries and casualties. This fact was highlighted by the death of a BGLO pledge at the University of Pennsylvania during the late 1970s. But the number of incidents seemed to escalate in the 1980s as BGLOs increased in popularity.
In 1984 a student was killed in an underground hazing ritual while attempting to pledge Omega at Hampton University. Even though pledge lines were welcomed on campus, this young man died in an unsanctioned secret event that took place a few days before the beginning of the University’s official rush period. His parents reached a quiet out-of-court settlement with the fraternity. In 1989, Joel Harris who died while pledging Alpha Phi Alpha after being punched and beaten at Morehouse College.  Though the Harris hazing case was the most widely publicized, it was just the tip of the iceberg, and the national organizations had become aware that they were facing a major crisis.

One reason the Harris case became so significant was because he belonged to the oldest Black frat, and the event took place on the campus of a high-profile HBCU, which was a stronghold of BGLO life. In response to his death, the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) voted to completely ban the traditional pledging process at its 1990 convention.
Some of the NPHC’s nine member organizations immediately ratified the ban on pledging at their own conventions, while others originally resisted the change, largely as a result of the objections of their younger members.
However, within a few years, all of the members of the Pan Hellenic Council had banned pledging in favor of short 2-3 week “New Member Intake Process” (MIP). The MIP was designed to reduce the window of opportunity for any hazing to occur.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s the national organizations also withdrew formal recognition of their fraternities and sororities  “little brother” and “little sister” auxiliary, organizations such as Men interested in Kappa, (MIKS) Sigma Sweethearts, Omega Pearls, etc. In too many instances, the members of these organizations, who were often first year students, were easy targets for hazing and sometimes sexual exploitation.

In recent years, the BGLOs have faced an avalanche of hazing-related incidents and lawsuits. The most tragic incident involved the death of Michael Davis who was beaten to death while pledging Kappa Alpha Psi at Southeast Missouri State University in 1994. The Davis case resulted in several frat brothers being convicted, and a $2.25 million lawsuit against the Kappa’s national organization and local officers.
Other notorious incidents include the 1995 hazing of an Alpha pledge, Sylvester Lloyd at Cornell University which resulted in the oldest African American fraternity being permanently banned from the campus where it was founded. The Alphas are still facing a $2 million lawsuit. Most recently, on July 30, 1999 a jury in Jefferson County Kentucky ordered Omega Psi Phi to pay $931,000 to Shawn A. Blackston a former University of Louisville student who suffered kidney failure after being severely beaten in April 1997.       
— Paul Ruffins

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