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Black Greeks and Honorary Membership

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This essay expresses the views of Kenneth D. Price, who while a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., does not speak for the organization.

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Did you know that President Bill Clinton is now an honorary member of a Phi Beta Sigma? President Clinton’s admittance came along with Rev. Al Sharpton, Stevie Wonder, Martin Lawrence, and Terrance Howard. The list is a part of a long line of honoraries that include Ben Chavis, Les Brown, Blair Underwood, Joe Dudley, William “Bootsy” Collins, Bobby Jones, Ramsey Lewis, and Al Roker – just to name a few.

So what about this practice of  Black Greek Letter Organizations [BGLOs] admitting honorary members?

This question re-emerges on the center stage of black Greek life after the recent induction by Delta Sigma Theta  of two high-profiled media celebrities, Gwen Ifill and Soledad O’Brien, as honorary members. The fanfare is the latest in a growing trend of some BGLOs going after celebrities like NBA lottery picks. The list of honorary members into these organizations is long. However, I am often amazed how the rush to associate celebrities hides the little known fact that many did not choose the organization, but were “recruited”.  The very choice BGLO hope young men and women make is relegated to the rear as celebrities become a part of the narrative to market organizations. In other words, while there is an appeal to list celebrities, that appeal is lost when the reality of their honorary/recruited entry is known. While BGLOs enjoy attaching themselves to celebrities, the luster is lost in-part when details of honorary induction become known.

The process begs questions about the very value of the BGLO system. Consider when Michelle Obama was asked to join the rich sisterhood of Alpha Kappa Alpha. A spokesperson for Ms. Obama noted that her membership is “non-exclusive”: “Because of her respect for each of the historically black sororities and fraternities, her membership is non-exclusive. She looks forward to working with all of them to help bring change to their communities.”  What does that say about the rich tradition of BGLOs that heretofore hold memberships as exclusive? In other words, one cannot be a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha and Delta Sigma Theta. Or can one?

Ms. Obama’s perspective is an afront to that very tradition and highlights how the honorary membership practice cheapens the BGLO system. The spokesperson’s comments suggest that the power elite hold honorary memberships in BGLOs in the same light that they do honorary PhD’s – obtain as many as possible. The practice is elitist. For instance, one organization just brought in a crop of famous people, some of whom did not attend college. What does that say to ordinary citizens (i.e., non-celebrities) that they cannot join unless they attend college?

Related to that is the undergraduate chapter practice of selecting individuals who will be invited to go through a membership program and rejecting others. I know of an individual who had stellar academic credentials (i.e., honors), served in leadership with college organizations, interned on Capitol Hill, had a history of community service, was President of the college class, spoke at the graduation ceremonies, etc, etc, etc – but who was rejected by a BGLO. To then watch that same organization effectively beg someone to accept its [honorary] membership is shameful at-minimum, if not outright hypocritical, and smacks against the context in which BGLOs were created, their histories, and traditions.

Further, BGLOs typically require that persons who want to join through alumni memberships hold at-least a Bachelors degree. This is great for BGLOs to project a positive image in the area of education. The degree standard is completely thrown-out with honorary members. In addition, while a BGLO might chase someone who starred in a movie or ran a touchdown, real role models who lack celebrity are ignored. What about some regular citizens, even a senior citizen, who starts a reading program in a community. Regular folks who actually live the core values of BGLOs – which is not “entertainment”. What about someone like a good friend of mine – a former gang banger, who was shot twice, stabbed, and run over by a car. But who now is no longer bangin’, who convene those still in that life, who personally intervenes when a hit is put out, and who does this in one of the most violent areas in our country? BGLOs preach certain values then — in this honorary membership culture — operate very differently.

Another issue relates to economics. BGLO membership fees are quite hefty. And they are not subject to change during difficult economic cycles. Ordinary folks then must pay large fees, while BGLOs beg famous folk to join who did not consider the BGLOs seriously enough to join the way others do. Some sacrifice financially to join BGLOs, only to be reminded that a celebrity can throw around a few dollars (if they pay at all) and receive the same membership benefits. Some Fraters and Sorors who suport the practice of Honorary Membership point to strategies. The rationale goes like this, “Honorary Membership extended to famous people promotes organization brands, inspires new members, energizes current members, opens doors, and brings in money.”

This is essentially an “ends justify the means” argument.  It abandons higher order vision, mission, values, principles, and standards. An organization that talks about education runs after an individual who throws a ball or plays in a movie, who did not take it upon himself/herself to attend college with the resources he/she NOW has. What does that say about principles. An organization that defines itself as promoting service, latches onto celebrities who are not necessarily service-oriented, but simply operating in the careers for which they are well paid. What does that say about commitment to mission and values? Strategy never has and never can be the rationale for a thing, particularly when it violates higher order/foundational organizational elements such as mission, values, and principles.

And if one argues this point, consider that the drug-dealer on the corner also has a strategy – a strategy for making money. But we decry dealing drugs because it violates commonly-held values and principles. This is why any Kappa proposal to admit honoraries will be soundly rejected by this Nupe. Proponents of the practice also cite the political benefits that accrue from honorary memberships. Namely, that the practice brings BGLOs power or influence in the marketplace. The claim is outrageous. What specific and measurable power did similar high-profile honoraries bring to BGLOs in times past? Where exactly is Eleanor Roosevelt’s legacy felt in Alpha Kappa Alpha? What footprint of outcomes did former Vice President Hubert Humphrey leave on Alpha Phi Alpha? And speaking of politics, this brings us the special case of President Bill Clinton.

One can make the argument that Clinton was very much a part of the Democratic Party’s distancing itself from black issues. Indeed, I make this case in a separate whitepaper that shows the Democratic National Convention’s [DNC] introduction of the Democratic Leadership Council [DLC] as a conservative arm to take the part to the right in hopes to gain support from white southerners, that is, former jim crow segregationists who were in the last major wave of party-switching after President Lyndon B Johnson’s famous “there goes the south” signing of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of 1964 and 1965, respectively.The DLC launched after Mondale’s campaign for the presidency failed in 1984. Conservatives such as Joe Liebermann and Bill Clinton came out of the DLC. And the much celebrated Clinton signed some of the most sweeping conservative legislation that were playbooks out of the Republican Party. Further, Clinton is directly tied to the recent collapse of our financial markets, a linkage that is clear, but rarely discussed in mainstream media.The political legacy of the DLC and Clinton, particularly, suggest that the practice of honorary membership into BGLOs is chiefly concerned with status and symbolism.

More recently, rumblings of President Barack Obama considering honorary membership into Kappa Alpha Psi have stirred debate inside the organization celebrating its 100th Anniversary. To-date, the fraternity has only a handful of honorary members, including: Dr E.N. Perkins, Indianapolis Alumni (1913); Phil A Jones, Chicago Alumni (1923); and four inductees during the 1915 chartering of the Delta Chapter at Wilberforce University. Obama would be the first such member in decades since the end of the fraternity’s honorary membership program. Considerations that Obama would somehow enhance Kappa’s influences are unlikely to manifest in reality. Obama has, to my dismay, been reticent on core issues confronting black America. Surely, he is not going to highlight Kappa while in office.

As for post-office, we can estimate the long-term prospects by looking at President Clinton’s modus operandi. Namely, we might ask the Sigmas, “How has Clinton enrolled Phi Beta Sigma in specific leadership roles in his Global Initiative, Haiti Relief efforts, and redevelopment of Harlem?”  I will be waiting for that answer. The honorary membership practice reduces BGLOs to high society clubs. And BGLOs do it just to be able to “claim” notable people who really did not choose them first. Honorary membership stinks up the joint. And I would urge others to consider its odor. In closing, I cannot dictate what other organizations do. If the the mere question arises at Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., I will quickly join in the certain flood of letters and emails Kappamen will publish to categorically reject the idea! As fate would have it, my brief research on this topic landed me on a story written by Lawrence Ross, of The Root, who opposes honorary membership.

The insightful article, entitled Meet Our Newest Honorary Member…Brother Jesus Christ! , takes a tongue-in-cheek aim at the practice. Let the debate continue…

Respectfully Kenneth D. Price Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc Zeta Chapter – The Ohio State University Spring 1979

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