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Nation's Oldest Black Fraternity Rocked By Hazing


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, a television journalist shares her story of balancing deadlines and motherhood. MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski on her new book, "All Things at Once." That's our parenting conversation, and that's in just a few minutes.

But first, in its more than 100 years of history, the African-American fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha has counted many prominent African-American leaders among its members, including author and activist W.E.B. Du Bois, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. But the next generation of leaders from Alpha Phi Alpha may have to wait. The organization's general president, Herman Skip Mason Jr., has suspended the intake of new members indefinitely.

In an email message to the membership, Mason cited concerns about hazing, stating, quote: The failure of some of our members to behave honorably and with care has exposed the fraternity again to unprecedented risks of loss.

The announcement follows an alleged hazing incident involving the chapter at Fort Valley State University in Georgia. In December, a member of that chapter was hospitalized and another arrested for battery.

Joining us to talk more about this is Lawrence Ross - Lawrence Ross Jr. He's the author of "The Divine Nine: The History of African-American Fraternities and Sororities in America." He's also a member of Alpha Phi Alpha and has spoken at dozens of campuses about hazing. And he's with us now from Los Angeles. Welcome. Welcome back, I should say.

Mr. LAWRENCE ROSS (Member, Alpha Phi Alpha): Happy to be here again.

MARTIN: Now, Lawrence Ross, we were talking earlier - actually, you said that when you got this message about suspending the intake of new members, you were actually glad. Why?

Mr. ROSS: I was ecstatic. One of the things I've been advocating for years is that we can't continue to have a broken intake system in terms of bringing in new member,s and think that it's going to be safe. And so at some point in time, you're going to need to stop, analyze what you're doing, and then create something that is completely different than what we've been doing in the past.

MARTIN: And why is it broken?

Mr. ROSS: It's - you know, in all honesty, it has always been broken. We've had a myriad of different pledge processes over, let's say, the last 80 years, and most of them have been predicated upon a dynamic between the members, the big brothers or big sisters, and the pledges, you know, who are in a subservient role, and the power construct basically creates an atmosphere where abuses are going to almost always occur.

Typically with men, it's typically a physical abuse - wood, you know, throwing wood and things like that. Or for women, it tends to be humiliation, although there are a lot more physical hazing incidents with women over the last 10 years, too.

MARTIN: Why is this so hard to tackle? As I mentioned, you've been talking about this for years now, and presumably you're not the only one. Why is this such a hard thing - such a hard nut to crack?

Mr. ROSS: It's hard because it's ingrained in the culture. The idea of pledging is ingrained in the culture, and particularly among men. One of the issues is that pledging tends to validate the people who actually go through it.

There's a sense within African-American men that once you've actually gone through a pledge process, you've achieved something, and you've also validated your manhood. That's why if you look at some undergraduate chapters in particular, you'll always see things, you know, that are - you know, the chapter nicknames will always be frightening, like Terrible Tau or the Bloody Beta or things like that. It's to give the general public an idea that the men who belong to this particular chapter are tough.

And oftentimes, you have African-American men and women who are coming to college campuses looking for some sense of achievement, and when you do that and build it up over years and add oral tradition, it's really difficult to actually get people to actually change.

MARTIN: Lawrence, we only have about a half a minute left. What do you hope will come out of this incident, which has to be embarrassing?

Mr. ROSS: It's not necessarily embarrassing if we don't nibble at the edges in terms of change. If we look at the whole process and come to the grips that, you know something, we need to do something completely revolutionary, we need to do something that is completely different, and we're doing it because we know what are our values, then I'll be very proud at the end of the day.

MARTIN: Lawrence Ross Jr. is the author of "The Divine Nine: The History of African-American Fraternities and Sororities in America." He joined us from Los Angeles. Lawrence, thanks so much for joining us and keep us posted, please.

Mr. ROSS: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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