Kamala Harris’ election underscores the cultural significance of HBCUs and Black Greeks
With HBCUs Behind Her, A Black Woman Ascends To The Vice Presidency
The American political landscape, once dominated by former President Donald J. Trump, is about to tack in a new direction helmed by President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. and Vice President Kamala D. Harris. When Harris is sworn in Wednesday, she becomes the United States’ first female, first African American and first Asian American to assume, arguably, the second-most powerful office in the world.
The Biden–Harris team is expected to hit the ground running with a 10-day blitz of executive actions and legislative proposals — including a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus and pandemic relief package — to turn around a country reeling from the recent siege on the U.S. Capitol and a public health crisis that has killed more than 400,000 Americans.
Harris has yet to be given a portfolio of issues to champion, but is expected to be part of an “all hands on deck” approach to four major administration priorities: economic recovery, pandemic relief, climate change and racial justice.
While her resume — San Francisco district attorney, California attorney general, United States senator — reflects her chops in the political arena, the heart of her support comes from her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, its female and male counterparts that comprise the “Divine Nine,” and the community of historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs.
Getting to know the “Divine Nine”
Founded in 1908 by a group of 16 women led by Ethel Hedgeman Lyle, Alpha Kappa Alpha is the first African-American Greek-letter sorority. Today, AKA boasts more than 300,000 members across 1,024 chapters throughout the United States and abroad. Its focus, according to its website, is promoting HBCUs, women’s health, financial planning, the arts and enhancing AKA’s global footprint.
Harris joined AKA through a process called pledging in 1986, and is remembered as someone destined for greatness.
“She always seemed to have somewhere to be,” said Harris’ pledge (or “line”) sister Gayle Danley, a poet in Bethesda, Md. “The media shows a lot of photos from that time of her carousing with her sorors, and that’s certainly part of the experience, but she always seemed on the move and laser-focused on ‘I’m going somewhere,’ and clearly she was.”
Alpha Kappa Alpha is one of the black Greek-letter organizations that make up the National Pan-Hellenic Council, unofficially known as the “Divine Nine.” The council is comprised of five fraternities: Alpha Phi Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi, Omega Psi Phi, Phi Beta Sigma and Iota Phi Theta, and four sororities: AKA, Delta Sigma Theta, Zeta Phi Beta and Sigma Gamma Rho.
Like AKA, these organizations were created at a time when African Americans on college campuses were denied the essential rights and privileges enjoyed by white Americans. Each is rooted in a commitment to community service and the betterment of its members and, although it does not campaign for individual candidates, the impact of the Divine Nine’s nearly 3 million members on the 2020 election was felt everywhere leading up to the Nov. 3.
“Black Greek organizations bring an automatic network of thousands of black professionals to whatever they focus their attention on,” said Danyahel Norris, a Houston-based attorney and a 2000 initiate of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. “This network was seen at the forefront [of the election] and will continue to have a major impact in the near future.”
Partnering with the NAACP, the “Divine Nine” conducted massive voter registration and get-out-the vote campaigns through no-contact canvassing in black neighborhoods and on social media. Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. employed celebrity members like comedians Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley and Ricky Smiley to get the word out.
HBCUs continue to build leaders
Harris is a proud graduate of a historically black institution, and has rarely missed an opportunity to cheerlead for Howard University and her “Divine Nine” affiliation.
Howard will always be home. pic.twitter.com/t6u0DDtyMU
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) October 25, 2020
Her ascension to the country’s first black vice president, however, fans the flames of an ongoing debate on the value of an HBCU education. Though hampered by a host of problems ranging from declining enrollment to limited access to federal research funding, HBCUs account for 22 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded to African Americans, and produce nearly a quarter of all black STEM graduates, according to a Thurgood Marshall College Fund report.
“HBCUs have never needed to be validated. We’ve graduated the best of the best,” said Michael McQuerry, communications director for Rep. Stacey E. Plaskett (D-U.S. Virgin Islands) and a 30-year member of Kappa Alpha Psi. “What [Harris’ election] does do is help in recruitment to HBCUs. Deion Sanders, the new head football coach at my alma mater Jackson State, is revolutionizing how top high school and college athletes look at HBCUs, and Vice President Kamala Harris will let the world know that HBCUs produce the best on every level.”
McQuerry’s classmate and 1993 AKA initiate, Rameka Davis, said she never gave a thought to attending University of Michigan or Michigan State University while growing up in neighboring Flint.
“I always wanted to go to an HBCU,” said Davis, a middle school principal. “Jackson State was the choice for me. The friends I made, the education I received, made me the woman I am today. There is no sense of inferiority instilled in me [as a result of attending an HBCU].”
“Howard created Zora Neale Hurston, Ta-Nehisi Coates and, now, Vice President Harris,” said Danley. “Greatness isn’t necessarily attached to where you go to school; cream will always rise to the top.”
Politics as blood sport
The journey from San Francisco district attorney to the West Wing is not without controversy.
As a self-described “progressive prosecutor,” Harris authored “Smart on Crime,” urging officials to focus on rehabilitation over retribution. “But Harris fell behind the curve over the past fifteen years, as the nation’s sense of the scope and moral urgency of needed reforms to the criminal legal system — and especially to the role of elected prosecutor — shifted dramatically,” said University of San Francisco law professor Lara Bezalon. “The shift revealed that Harris’s brand of ‘progressive prosecution’ was really just ‘slightly less-awful prosecution’ — a politics, and set of policies, that still meant being complicit in securing America’s position as the world’s leading jailer.”
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“I don’t fault [Harris] when viewed through the lens of hindsight,” said Maria Washington, a federal contractor. “Think back to what our urban centers looked like back then; we had no idea of the impact mass incarceration would have on us years later.”
In 2019, while campaigning for president, Harris took hard shots at eventual nominee Biden over his past record on busing that gave her a bump in the polls, but led some in the president-elect’s camp to distrust her.
The inauguration of a Biden–Harris partnership is proof that both Biden — and the voters — were willing to put those issues in their rearview mirror.
“Once the country was able to take a step back and look at the whole woman, it was able to see that she was the woman for the job,” said Danley. “She’s had to make some tough decisions, but there’s no doubt in Joe Biden’s mind and the millions of people who voted for her that her experiences make her uniquely qualified.”
Looking forward, moving forward
As Trump leaves the nation’s capital, Biden assumed the role of consoler-in-chief one day early. He and Harris, along with their spouses, led a memorial service at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool Tuesday night to honor the 400,000 lives lost to the pandemic. Four hundred lights surrounded the pool, each representing 1,000 COVID-19 deaths.
“We gather tonight, a nation in mourning, to pay tribute to the lives we lost,” Harris said at the memorial service. “For many months, we have grieved by ourselves. Tonight we grieve together.”
Against a backdrop of 25,000 National Guard troops providing security for the Biden–Harris inauguration — deployed in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 siege on the Capitol — the president-elect and vice president-elect brought a message of healing in stark contrast to incendiary rhetoric of the Trump years.
For some, it is a time of both concern and optimism.
“Given the political climate, I didn’t think we needed another black person in the executive branch,” said Washington. “Despite my initial misgivings, my main concern now is for [Harris’] safety. It’s great, but I’m torn.”
“The election of former senator, now Vice President Kamala Harris gives me hope and joy. Hope because I know I have someone who looks like me, has most of the same values as me, and cherishes this country. She is undoubtedly getting ready to be part of a team that is about to take this country in a new direction,” McQuerry said. “Joy because the current resident of the White House will no longer be a threat to our democracy.”
Getting the comic book treatment
Harris is the one of latest subjects of the “Political Power” series of comic books. Published by TidalWave Comics with words and art by Michael Frizell and Juan Burgos, “Political Power: Madam Vice President Kamala Harris” tells her story “using the unique storytelling properties of comic books.”
The “Political Power” series was launched during the 2008 presidential campaign, with Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton as the first subjects.
“At the end of the day, I don’t want anyone to know who I support or voted for,” Davis said. “That is up to the reader, so we have to keep these fair and unbiased.”
Harris’ “Political Power” comic, as well as a Biden issue, are being released on inauguration day.
(Edited by Kristen Butler and Alex Patrick)