Fraternities & Civil Rights In America

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We’ve all gone through the Phired Up session. Handshakes lead to conversations.Conversations lead to relationships. Relationships lead to collaboration.Collaboration leads to organization. Organizations Change The World. 

It’s a pretty simple formula. People getting together and discussing ideas is the basis for all growth or progression. The American Revolution sparked of nothing more than colonists hating taxes and talking about it. (There was actually more to it than that).

It’s with this truth that I’ve hypothesized that fraternities and sororities have been ahead of every major social movement in American History and are the driver of a unique and fast-paced development of civil rights in our young country. There is also a neat correlation, discussed at the end of this post, to show that we may still be benefiting progress in the U.S.

“There is no army strong enough to stop an idea whose time has come”

– Ron Paul

It’s important to recognize the uniqueness of the Greek-letter fraternity in American culture. Secret societies have existed throughout the time of man, but the college fraternity made it regular and open to any person with an education. As college enrollment grew, so did the number of people engaged in these “elite” membership organizations. What happens when “educated” folks come together? They talk.

As we mentioned, major social movements begin with conversations. The Revolution began as a series of papers (propaganda) circulated the colonies opposing British oppression and the lack of representation in the face of growing taxation. After they burned us a few times, we went to war and Britain has been our little sidekick ever since. (Give or take another 100 years)

There were college educated men at the time, and many were involved in tight circles and secret societies. It was here that those initial conversations took place. It was from here that the plans to win the hearts of the British and later, when all was lost, the plans to turn the colonists against them were strategized, written and distributed. This group of college-educated men, meeting in secret, started our world as we know it.


Think of almost any social movement in America, the right of women to vote, the civil rights act, the repeal of DOMA and the fights that lie ahead, and you may notice that their accomplishments were pre-dated by the creation of a fraternity or sorority to address the particular issue. In fact, there seems to be a correlation of 4-6 decades between the creation of a new type of fraternity and its associated national movement.

Women create the first women’s fraternity: 1852

Women’s suffrage movement begins: 1890 (National American Woman Suffrage Association is founded)

Black men create Alpha Phi Alpha Inc., the first black fraternity: 1906

Civil Rights Act is concepted: 1963

 . . . the incoming students in 1905-06, in founding Alpha Phi Alpha, were determined to bind themselves together to ensure that each would survive in the racially hostile environment.

-From Alpha Phi Alpha website

I don’t mean to say that black fraternities and sororities are the reason the Civil Rights Act was drafted and passed. The fact that eight black fraternities and sororities were developed between 1906 and 1922 and that a ninth was created the year of the Civil Rights Act lends itself to the thought.

Fraternities have more recently explored the realms of other groups of Americans who just happen to be the talk of the town politically. Most Latino organizations were founded in the 80’s and 90’s. Fraternities serving the LGBTQ community got their start around the same time and are growing to campuses across the country at an enviable rate.

It’s interesting then that two of the biggest, if not the two biggest, civil rights discussions of our time revolve around immigration (specifically immigration from countries south of Texas) and gay men and women. It’s interesting that fraternities and sororities associated with both of these causes began forming en masse at around the same time and that they both now share the national stage.

The Tea Party? College Fraternities did American Pride and rebellion first. think Animal House from the 80’s; our tea party has been brewing for 30+ years!

Transgender issues? Our chapters are, at the moment, exploring the idea of single-sex membership for transgender or transsexual folks to fit into the construct of fraternity, a type of organization most consider a socially-regressive hell.

The seemingly new philanthropic focus of America’s youth and start ups? We’ve focused on volunteerism and philanthropic donations for decades.

Hipsters wearing colorful pants? Fraternities did it first.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world, indeed, it is the only thing which ever has.

-Margaret Mead

It’s easy for me to see how fraternity men and women graduating from college with widespread connections would incorporate what they’ve done and learned in college into their personal and professional lives. If you ran an organization in college with a five or six-digit budget and spent four years fundraising for philanthropic causes, wouldn’t you be inclined to incorporate that practice into your career plans?

New movements are always incubating underneath the mainstream culture. As the digital and information age dawns upon us, we see the amount of time for movements to form shortening from a couple decades to a couple years or minutes. Every conversation you have in your chapter meeting could be the start of a new revolution!

Big or small, one can correlate almost any major movement in America with the development of associated college fraternities and sororities. These are groups men and women who spend a great deal of time in college building networks and making things happen. They know how to get others on board with a humanist cause and they will continue to spark important discussions in this country as long as they thrive on campuses across the country. Correlation doesn’t imply causation, but it’s fun to think about.

Maybe next year all the fraternities will start to love Ron Paul. . . wait!