Lastword – Black Greek Deathwatch

After the hand-wringing over a hazing death comes a period of reckless behavior leading to yet another death. Will we stop the cycle?

A little more than 20 years ago, during the third week of October, as I returned to my apartment my neighbor said, “Kimbrough, one of the Alphas is dead!” Panicking, I hurriedly turned on the television and began making phone calls. I thought he meant a brother in my chapter. However, the deceased turned out to be Morehouse College student Joel Harris, who was pre-pledging Alpha Phi Alpha without the approval of the fraternity or the college. His heart condition could not take what he witnessed — his line brothers being beaten at an off-campus apartment

Twenty years later, in the third week of October, I opened my e-mail to learn about another death, this time Prairie View A&M University student Donnie Wade Jr., who, along with a group of aspirants, was engaged in what sounds like early morning physical training at a high school nine miles from campus. Wade apparently passed out and was driven some 30 miles to a hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival

As we approach Feb. 17, the 20th anniversary of the meeting when the presidents of the largest Black fraternities and sororities collectively agreed each would end pledging, students still experience injuries and occasional deaths from trying to join. In fact, there is a rhythm of death, roughly occurring every fi ve years from 1983 to 2009

So it was time, and as I said often, I felt we were overdue for a death

So now we’ll go through a season of renewed debate, hearing the same old thoughts and arguments. They’ll go something like this: He should have walked away. Why do we make aspirants responsible for enforcing our rules? The end of pledging is like prohibition and is riskier now than when it was legal — bring it back

People were injured and died before pledging ended so bringing it back is idiotic. It’s his fault for agreeing to be hazed. He had no choice because those who don’t illegally pledge are ostracized and sometimes assaulted

After all of the back and forth, we’ll be right back in the death cycle, waiting for the next news report of another student lost joining an organization that, based on the data, they won’t be active in shortly after graduation (if they even graduate)

And that’s the absurdity of this entire situation. It is more diffi cult to join a fraternity than it is to get married, and yet the institution of marriage is much more essential to the community. We know the challenges facing children who have to navigate life without fathers, but no idea of the measurable, demonstrable value of a fraternity in our community. It is more diffi cult to join a sorority than it is to get a job, and yet when you get in the sorority you don’t ever have to work for the organization yet be recognized and loved by your sorors “for life.” In the real world, if you don’t work, you get fi red

It is even harder to join a Greek-lettered organization than it is to join a church, and obviously preparing for life beyond this earth for most is more important than an organization that occasionally benefi ts the community. Churches have the same issues with people not being involved once they join, like not attending worship (meetings) and not tithing (donating). There is no penalty from the church if you aren’t faithful, just like Greek organizations. But no one joins a church with the risk of dying

When it does happen in the name of church, we call that a cult

I’ve done hundreds of anti-hazing programs

I used to be developmental; now I just tell people what the consequences are and hope they make good choices. If they don’t, I will serve as the expert witness to make them pay (I’ve worked about 10 civil cases). But the challenge I and others engaged in this work have is that every three years or so, there is a new group that has not heard about the risks but know all about the traditions

Today’s students don’t know about Joel Harris, Michael Davis, Joseph Green, Kenitha Saafi r, or Kristin High. They all died trying to belong. They also don’t know about the dozens more injured every year, and the hundreds who will have emotional scars from their experiences. They know they want to belong and that means pledging — illegal or not

So the cycle has started again. We are on the clock — fi ve years or so to change the culture or watch another young person die

I am declaring a state of emergency for all of us — administrators, faculty, students, parents, national organizations, scholars, law enforcement and activists. We need to act like our child could be next

I think that way now. In 15 years, my daughter will be a college freshman. I’ve got two chances to break the cycle before she gets to college or the third victim might be my own

Her name is Lydia. D — Dr. Walter Kimbrough is president of Philander Smith College.