Why people are leaving their Black Greek organizations

Exploring the wave of denouncements and renouncements hitting social media
Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Ernie Suggs, (third from left on back row), with his line brothers and big brothers on Feb. 28, 1989, hours before they officially became members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. at North Carolina Central University.

Credit: Charles Nixon

Credit: Charles Nixon

Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Ernie Suggs, (third from left on back row), with his line brothers and big brothers on Feb. 28, 1989, hours before they officially became members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. at North Carolina Central University.

I still remember the phone call more than 30 years ago.

“Your boy quit the frat,” the voice on the other end of the long-distance call announced.

“How do you quit being an Alpha?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “He just quit.”

And with that, one of my closest fraternity brothers had quietly exited from Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity.

These were the days before social media created platforms to make all of us stars, if only for 15 minutes. So there was no fanfare, big announcement or national conversation.

I suppose over the last 118 years, since my fraternity launched the Black Greek movement in 1906, people have quit their organizations for various reasons.

Generally, it is done quietly or they simply fade away.

Credit: Jasmine Q. Louis

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Credit: Jasmine Q. Louis

But in the past few weeks, there seems to have been an increasing number of men and women on social media who have denounced and renounced their memberships from one of the nine Pan-Hellenic Council organizations. It appears this is being done mainly in the name of religion, specifically Christianity.

Those leaving argue these organizations, known collectively as the Divine Nine, are inherently incompatible with Christianity because of their secrecy, privileged information sharing, and demand of allegiance in ways that supersede a commitment to the church and Jesus Christ.

“You are putting all those things between you and God,” Jasmine Q. Louis told me this week. “You are vowing and placing these things over God. They appear like Christian-like organizations, but they don’t align with God.”

Renouncing and Denouncing

By strict definition, “renouncing” is when a person, by a formal declaration, gives up, refuses or resigns from something. “Denouncing,” is the public declaration that something or someone is wrong or evil.

Gregory Parks, a Wake Forest University law professor and the editor of “The Law of Fraternities and Sororities, said people making their grand exits are doing both.

He said people who leave these organizations believe their religious beliefs — usually Christian — are incongruent with the levels of psychological and emotional investment that often come with Divine Nine membership.

“One tension comes with swearing an oath to one’s fraternity or sorority, which some D9 members of faith see as a religious conflict,” Parks said.

Parks added that Divine Nine organizations, for better or worse, can also be “greedy,” or demanding of a person’s time.

“As such, in response to what some Divine Nine members see as a crowding out of their faith — and often a very narrow conception of faith — they leave,” Parks said.

Approval of God

The most high-profile of these came on May 20 from Howard University when Zora Sanders, a pre-law political science and history double major took to Instagram just days after she became a member of Delta Sigma Theta to publicly denounce her letters for what she called “idolatry.”

“Before I was invited to join the organization, despite all the research and information I had gathered, I was not aware of the specific requirements needed to become an official member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.,” she wrote in a post that has gotten nearly 20,000 likes and more than 6,000 comments.

“As I detail these requirements,” her post continued, “I want to emphasize that they were my non-negotiable from the beginning and that while I did initially compromise on them, this is not something I am willing to continue compromising on under any circumstances.”

Credit: Jasmine Q. Louis

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Credit: Jasmine Q. Louis

Jasmine Q. Louis understands.

Growing up in Dublin, Georgia, she had a second-grade teacher who was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. In high school, her cheerleading coach was an AKA. By the time she enrolled in Savannah State University, those Black women who had served as key role models influenced her decision to join the oldest Black sorority in the world.

She became a member in the fall of 2012. She was number 48 on a line of 49 women.

“When I look at my journey, it was something I wanted and admired,” she said. “But once I got into and looked through a spiritual lens, I asked ‘Why did we do certain things? Why were we so mean to women who wanted to join? Why were we so arrogant?’ That does not represent God.”

Louis slowly distanced herself from the sorority before deciding to leave in 2018. She sent a notarized letter to the sorority and went to Facebook to publicly announce it.

The backlash from her line sisters and chapter members was swift, and harsh.

Jasmine Q. Louis getting baptized in 2015.

Credit: Jasmine Q. Louis

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Credit: Jasmine Q. Louis

“But I was not asking for the approval of man, I was looking for approval of God,” she said. “I did it publicly, on Facebook, because when we decide to give our faith to Christ, we do it publicly. It takes the Holy Spirit to help you see these things.”

About two weeks ago, Whitney Gordon posted a series of TikTok videos explaining why she left Alpha Kappa Alpha. She joined the organization at the University of Georgia in 2007 and denounced it in 2013.

“I made the recent videos because I felt that God was calling me to share my story and I have learned a lot more since 2013,” she said.

Gordon said she is still friends with several of her former sorority sisters and the backlash hasn’t been that bad.

Lawrence Ross, the author of “The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities said he finds the use of social media to announce renouncement a “curious” phenomenon, “because your membership is an intensely personal thing.”

Author Lawrence Ross (#3) pledging Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity in 1985 at the University of California, Berkeley.

Credit: Lawrence Ross

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Credit: Lawrence Ross

“I’m always a bit amused at someone thinking that their announcement has any greater meaning than amplifying their own choice,” said Ross, who pledged Alpha Phi Alpha in 1985 at the University of California, Berkeley.

“It would be like announcing that I’m no longer eating meat and I’m now a vegan. Sure, there may be a bunch of reasons behind this, but at the end of the day, the choice is mine and mine alone.”

‘Damn this treacherous flattery’

Black Greek organizations are not for everyone. In fact, for an outsider looking in, it can be a strange thing to see a bunch of college-educated Black men and women jumping around wearing Greek letters and identifying with Egyptian symbols.

Robert Watkins, 24, from Georgia Southern, dances for his fraternity Omega Psi Phi and others.

Credit: Elissa Eubanks / AJC

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Credit: Elissa Eubanks / AJC

But I am a witness to how they promote brotherhood and sisterhood, community service, leadership development, and academic excellence, while also enhancing personal growth, social networking, and community engagement.

That is how these spaces helped create the Black middle class and served as training grounds for some of Black America’s most gifted and influential minds, from former U.S. Congressman John Lewis, a member of Phi Beta Sigma, to Vice President Kamala Harris, a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha.

These groups have also included religious leaders like Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, (Delta Sigma Theta); Bishop Leontine T. Kelly (Alpha Kappa Alpha); Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (Alpha Phi Alpha); Rev. Jesse Jackson (Omega Psi Phi); Rev. Hosea Williams (Phi Beta Sigma); and Rev. Ralph David Abernathy (Kappa Alpha Psi).

In this April 3, 1968 file photo, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stands with other civil rights leaders on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., a day before he was assassinated at approximately the same place. From left are Hosea Williams, Jesse Jackson, King, and Ralph Abernathy. This photo often appears on social media with the words SIGMA, OMEGA, ALPHA and KAPPA to honor each of their Black Greek letter affiliations.
(AP Photo/Charles Kelly, File)

Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

In 1956, at Alpha Phi Alpha’s 50th-anniversary convention in Buffalo, New York, King told the brothers: “We need leaders not in love with money but in love with justice. Not in love with publicity but in love with humanity. Leaders who can subject their particular egos to the pressing urgencies of the great cause of freedom. God give us leaders. A time like this demands great leaders. Leaders whom the fog of life cannot chill, men whom the lust of office cannot buy. Leaders who have honor, leaders who will not lie. Leaders who will stand before a pagan god and damn his treacherous flattery.”

The fraternity gave him the Alpha Award of Honor that night.

Tip of the iceberg

Parks, who became a member of Alpha Phi Alpha in 1997 and recently ran unsuccessfully for the fraternity’s general president position, said there seems to be a critical mass of people who have renounced their organizations over the last decade. He added that organizations who dismiss or ignore this recent phenomenon do so at “their own peril.”

Wake Forest School of Law professor Gregory Parks poses for a portrait in the Worrell Professional Center on Tuesday, October 11, 2022.

Credit: ©WFU/Ken Bennett

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Credit: ©WFU/Ken Bennett

“They are the tip of the iceberg of other members who have left D9 organizations but quietly. They also reflect a reality that D9 organizations long have had a significant issue around organizational commitment, retention, reclamation, and engagement of members,” Parks said. “I don’t think D9 organizations take seriously why members emotionally, psychologically, and physically disengage and walk away from our organizations.”

Ross, noting that there are millions of Black Greeks and thousands more on college campuses waiting to join, said these organizations will continue to survive and thrive despite the actions of a small handful who renounce.

But he has a warning.

“I do think we need to do a better job of screening aspirants prior to their initiation and find out if there are any potential inconsistencies between our organizations and the personal belief systems of the aspirant,” he said. “That would save everyone a lot of time. We only want those who want to be in our organizations. It is a choice, not a requirement to be a Divine Nine member.”

As it should be

Getting back to that brother of mine. Except for random, periodic sightings, most of us have not seen him in more than three decades.

However, he is in our group chat and chimes in from time to time to talk smack.

When my mother died in 2021, he was one of the main brothers who coughed up money for an amazing spray of flowers.

As far as we are concerned, he is still our brother.

We never asked him why he left and he never told us.

The reason and choices were his and his alone.

As it should be.

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