When Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed the nation's toughest immigration law, Arizona Senate Bill 1070, it instantly put the nation's oldest African-American college fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, Inc., in a tough spot. With their national convention scheduled to take place this July in Phoenix, Alpha Phi Alpha General President Herman "Skip" Mason and its board of directors had to make a decision: Should they join other groups who were protesting the law by boycotting the state of Arizona?
"We had a board conference call last Thursday and decided to boycott," Mason said. "We moved our convention to Las Vegas because we wanted to keep the convention in the West, and we needed a place that was competitive with room rates and offered entertainment and attractions." The conference dates will remain the same: July 21-25.
The new immigration law, which will take effect in late July, allows the police to ask the legal residency status of any person they suspect is illegally in the United States. Critics of the law say racial profiling of Latinos and other minorities is inevitable and protests have broken out around the country.
The city of San Francisco has prohibited its city workers from traveling to Arizona, while the American Immigration Lawyers Association moved its convention from the state. And when Major League Baseball's Arizona Diamondbacks travel around the country, protesters are greeting the team at many ballparks.
The decision to boycott Arizona is not without a cost for Alpha Phi Alpha. Breaking contracts with Phoenix area hotels, catering, and meeting rooms means the fraternity is now in litigation with contractors. And while Mason can't give an exact amount on how much the boycott will cost the fraternity, he estimates that Alpha is looking at over $300,000 in penalties. That doesn't include over 3,000 Alphas who will have to change their flight and hotel reservations as soon as possible.
"I'm ecstatic that our dear fraternity took a hard-line stance with a state known for attempting to block our Brother Martin Luther King Jr.'s national holiday," said Terry Calhoun, a financial planner and Alpha Phi Alpha member from Illinois. Calhoun purchased his discount airline tickets to Phoenix months ago, and will now be paying extra for the trip to Las Vegas. But he's fine with it.
"I would be willing to go to a campfire to hold the national convention as opposed to going to the oppressive state of Arizona," Calhoun said.
"The boycott is part of an economic strategy. While we may have a [financial] loss, we were adamant about not putting another dime into the economy with our brothers through taxis, restaurants and other [Phoenix businesses]," Mason said.
"Further, our main concern was the protection and security of our brothers who are Hispanic, have accents, etc. The law meant that if there was suspicion, [the police] could come up into our [fraternity] business session and pull some brothers out. Right now, our political action committee is working with our public policy to develop our strategy and action plan to mark our continued protest of law in Phoenix."
But even as the fraternity faces a financial loss, Mason thinks it was the right decision. The legacy of Alpha Phi Alpha is centered on the social activism of its ordinary members, and its more famous members, like former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. So to Mason, boycotting Arizona was the only option.
"Alpha returned, in that single decision, back to its historic activities roots," Mason concluded. "It is a decision that I am certain that history will judge us on the right side of this issue."
Lawrence C. Ross Jr. is the author of The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities and a brother of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. Follow him on Twitter.
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.