by Phillip Johnson
Over 30 years ago, I joined the fraternity of Alpha Phi Alpha, Inc. Their motto “First of All, Servants of All, We shall Transcend All,” spoke to their being the first Black fraternity and their lofty vision for brotherhood.
They touted iconoclastic members, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, U.S. Sen. Edward Brooke and Ambassador Andrew Young, all from the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement. They engaged in the community with programs like “A Voteless People is a Hopeless People,” and they have changed the trajectory of the lives of thousands of young men in the process.
Yet, despite their great history, the decision to pull their 2010 National Convention from Arizona, in the aftermath of that state’s recent legislation that effectively legalizes racial profiling, may have been Alpha Phi Alphas’ greatest moment.
The decision by the board of directors of Alpha Phi Alpha sent two strong messages.
First, the fraternity was willing to walk the walk. The decision was not just a moral and political choice; it was fraught with economic consequences, as reportedly it may have cost them $300,000 in cancelled contracts and possible litigation. Yet the leadership of Alpha Phi Alpha did not blink, as they took a moral stand that would make its seven founding “Jewels” proud.
Even more important was the second message, which I hope the African-American community pays close attention to.
This message was the rejection of fear and the self-loathing that many in our community seem to have with respect to our Latino brethren. A few weeks ago, I posted a note on social media reminding people who complain about the lack of African-Americans in baseball that the color line broken by Jackie Robinson was not exclusive to African-Americans. Instead of bemoaning the lack of Blacks in baseball, we should celebrate the greatness of Albert Pujols, Juan Marichal and Roberto Clemente and not minimize them because they are not African-American.
But this “Latino thing” we seem to have goes far beyond public discourse. In private conversations among African-Americans, I often hear disdain, anger and jealously toward foreigners who come into “our neighborhoods” and start businesses and take jobs. Of late, their vitriol is aimed at Latinos.
I have listened in amazement that so-called educated Black folks were threatened by individuals, many of whom barely spoke English, were not afforded the protection of citizenship and could only compete for the most marginal jobs.
My amazement was deepened by the fact that, if I closed my eyes, what I was hearing was not much different from the message from the far-right fringe dwellers whose inherent insecurity, fear and hatred creates enemies— more imagined than real.
This decision by Alpha Phi Alpha now places the nation’s oldest African-American fraternity clearly on the side of those who are enlightened. Rather than fear immigration, they place a higher value of the rights of all. In 1946, Alpha Sydney P. Brown wrote the immortal poem “House of Alpha,” which begins with the words:
Goodwill is the monarch of this house, men
Unacquainted, enter, shake hands, exchange
Greetings and depart friends. Cordiality exists
Among all who abide within. I am the eminent
Expression of friendship. Character and
Temperament change under my dominant power.
Lives once touched by me become tuned and are
thereafter amiable, kindly, and fraternal.
The decision by Alpha Phi Alpha to eschew the convention in Arizona represents a transcendent perspective that is needed as this debate moves forward. Immigration is a complex issue that has at its roots, racism, greed, fear and opportunity. The resolution of this issue can only come when the debate is elevated above fear, hatred and self-loathing.
Alpha Phi Alpha remain far-thinking Black men who continue to be the “light of the world” its founders in 1906 intended the fraternity to be. Men of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc.—be very proud of your fraternity.
(Phillip Johnson is a writer and filmmaker in St. Louis. Reprinted from the St. Louis American.)