In Part 1 of a special 3-part series on Black Greek Letter Organization hazing, author Lawrence C. Ross Jr. on the physical and mental hazing that has injured (and in some cases, killed) scores of college students for decades.
Pledging. For most black fraternity and sorority members initiated before 1990, pledging is when they formed their first fraternal memories. The identical uniforms, marching across campus, reciting poems and history, fulfilling the whims of their big brothers and sisters—these pledging activities were all designed to create an experience through which the pledge would be bonded to their new organization for life. These organizations are an important, often integral, part of college life for thousands upon thousands of African-American college students at HBCUs and more mainstream campuses. These organizations do important community service—scholarship funds, operating food pantries, self-esteem and teen pregnancy programs—around the country, and sometimes, around the world.
The dark side of pledging, though—the way into these organizations—the physical and mental hazing that has maimed scores of college students for decades, in certain circles, continues still, even though it is outlawed in some states and is cause for suspension of membership in each of the nine largest black organizations. Over the last few decades, black Greek national organizations have shortened the pledge period from a year to a semester, and by the mid ‘80s, it was down to six to eight weeks. In theory, a shorter pledge period meant reduced risk for the pledge and reduced liability for the organization. It didn’t work.
In 1989, Joel Harris was a Morehouse College sophomore who was determined to pledge the oldest African-American fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha. The 18-year-old was attracted to the fraternity after learning about famous members like Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall, and soon was initiated onto a pledge line with 19 other Morehouse students. Weeks later, he was dead.
The coroner’s report said the cause of Harris’ death was an irregular heartbeat. But he also noted that Harris had suffered numerous blows to the chest and face, a custom known as “thunder and lightening.” A pledge is first punched in the chest (the thunder), and then slapped in the face so hard that the pledge sees blinding lights (the lightening). Hazing, for the record, is also outlawed in the state of Georgia.
The reaction to the Harris case by black Greek organizations was a mixture of horror and panic. Hazing deaths had occurred before (Omega Psi Phi pledges had died on the Tennessee State and Hampton campuses in 1983 and 1984), but the Harris death appeared to be the final straw.
Aside from the obvious and tragic loss of young, promising lives, pledging deaths are, of course, bad publicity for black Greek organizations, and there have been lawsuits. After being sued by the Harris family, Alpha Phi Alpha and Morehouse College each eventually settled for $500,000.
After the death of Joel Harris, most of the Divine Nine black fraternities and sororities immediately declared a moratorium on pledging, and within a year, had dissolved pledging altogether, and replaced it with a new, highly controlled membership intake process (MIP). Initiation would take place over the course of only two weekends. But 20 years after Harris’ death and the “official” end to pledging, a new illegal form of pledging not only exists, but thrives. It’s called “underground” pledging, and while the national organizations decry it as illegal and issue statements about trying to eradicate it, it’s clear that none of the black Greek organizations are close to a solution.
“Underground pledging really isn’t underground,” says Dr. Walter M. Kimbrough, president of Philander Smith University and author of Black Greek 101: The Culture, Customs, and Challenges of Black Fraternities and Sororities (Fairleigh Dickenson University Press, 2003). Dr. Kimbrough is also a member of Alpha Phi Alpha. “Everyone knows it’s happening, so maybe we should more accurately call it “low-key” pledging. Nothing has been successful in [terms of] stopping it, so I think the national organizations are trying to manage rather than eradicate it. We’re simply treating the acute cases, but aren’t looking for a cure.”
Nicknamed the Divine Nine–Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc., Iota Phi Theta Fraternity, Inc., Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. and Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc.—were founded between 1906 and 1963, and have been at the forefront of the most collegiate and post-collegiate African-American life for the past 100 years. Nikki Giovanni is a Delta. Michelle Obama accepted an honorary membership from AKA. Zora Neale Hurston was a Zeta. Tavis Smiley is a member of Kappa Alpha Psi, as is Congressman John Conyers Jr. The list of acclaimed, talented and successful members of the Divine Nine reads like a Who’s Who of African-American history.
Tradition and fraternalism are great unifiers among the organizations. Whether it’s at a step show before thousands, conducting a community service project in the inner city or fellowshipping over drinks, black Greeks believe in creating bonds that move beyond friendship, and instead are centered around deeper ideals and principles like brotherhood and sisterhood. For many, the trials and tribulations around pledging are symbolic of the trials of life. And without an official pledge program, recent black Greeks continue to emulate that tradition by creating their own illegal process.
You don’t have to look far to find examples of the underground pledging culture on the Internet. Pledge Park, a social network for black Greeks, proclaims that those who “pledged” will be able to handle their community, while those who “skated” won’t. On Facebook, a popular black Greek group called “Paper Burns, but Sands Last Forever” thrives. Paper refers to initiates who don’t pledge underground and instead are initiated via MIP (hence signing a piece of paper), versus those who pledge and cross the “burning sands.” Those who pledge underground don’t think they’re perverting their organizations rules and bylaws, but instead, believe that they’re upholding a tradition.
Anjan Basu, a 33-year-old English graduate student at North Carolina A&T, pledged Alpha Phi Alpha on an underground line for eight weeks in 1999. Last March, Basu wrote “I Love Hazing—Can We Bring It Back?” a controversial editorial for Black College Wire that advocated for a return to pledging as an official policy.
“I feel that in the development of young men, which is what the undergraduate fraternity is supposed to be aligned with, a degree of physicality is called for,” Basu wrote. “And regardless of political correctness, sometimes a young man’s convictions can only be tested through action, and consequently, physical violence.”
Tomorrow: “The rule changes national offices initiate are for little more than window-dressing and legal defenses … The question is not if, but when, another kid will be injured or killed trying to join one of our groups.”
Lawrence C. Ross Jr. is author of the best-selling The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities. He is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.
Lawrence Ross is the author of the Los Angeles Times best-seller The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities. His newest book, Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses, is a blunt and frank look at the historical and contemporary issue of campus racism on predominantly white college campuses. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.