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Alpha Phi Alpha and Civil Rights

Q: While researching for a book about the students who came from Hampton Institute to Ferris Institute between 1910 and 1920s, we discovered that many of them became members of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. We were particularly drawn to the question, "What was the role of the Alphas as a civil rights organization?"

~Franklin Hughes and David Pilgrim

1932 Alpha Phi Alpha banquet. Belford Lawson is sitting to the left of W.E.B. DuBois (DuBois is in the light suit).A: The Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity was founded in 1906 by seven students at Cornell University to combat the isolation they experienced at the mostly-white Ivy League school.[1] They were the first African American, intercollegiate Greek-lettered fraternity. Almost from their beginning, the fraternity used its resources in the fight against Jim Crow laws and customs.

     We are particularly interested in the life of work of Belford V. Lawson, the first African American to win a case before the United State Supreme Court. The case, New Negro Alliance v. Sanitary Grocery Co. (1938), was a landmark decision which resulted in “immediate employment of hundreds of clerks in all types of chain stores … in obtaining clerical and other white collar jobs for Negroes” and solidified the right to picket for jobs.[2] Lawson was also the lead attorney in the Henderson v. Southern Railway System case of 1950—a case financially supported by the Alphas for eight years. Lawson hoped that the Supreme Court would use the case as a means of overturning Plessy v. Ferguson. The Court would not go that far; however, they did rule that against Jim Crow segregation in “interstate travel on trains particularly in dining cars.”[3]

     There were many court cases that chipped away at the legal underpinnings of Plessy, and the Alphas played a central role in all the cases—providing funding, legal expertise, and public relations. For example, in Murray v. Pearson, the Maryland Supreme Court ruled against racial segregation at the University of Maryland Law School. More specifically, the Court ruled that black students could not be excluded from the law school on the basis of their race. This case is also notable because it was the first major civil rights case won by Thurgood Marshall, another Alpha. The case was settled in 1935, and by that time the Alphas were a preeminent civil rights organization. Not surprisingly, Alphas paid all the legal fees and provided all the legal representation for Donald Gaines Murray, the black man trying to enroll in the University of Maryland. This was a forerunner case to other landmark decisions such as Gaines v. University of Missouri and Johnson v. University of Kentucky that led to Brown v. Board of Education of 1954, which ended legal school segregation.

     There are hundreds of historical figures who were Alphas. Thurgood Marshall, Charles Hamilton Houston, Paul Robeson, Charles H. Wesley, Walter White, and W. E. B. Du Bois (an honorary member) were Alphas.[4] Lawson was “widely regarded as Mr. Alpha,” as he served as the 16thpresident of the organization and spent decades giving public speeches on behalf of the organization.[5] The fraternity’s commitment to racial equality was evident in a speech that Lawson delivered at their 1946 national convention. His challenge to his fraternal brothers included these words:

“The great decision of this generation of Alpha men is whether we shall, with every ounce of energy, with every dollar in our treasury, with every fiber in our mind and soul, deny the gigantic conspiracy to preserve our segregated status quo, and destroy the mighty, monstrous mockery of human decency and dignity, the yoke of Jim Crow which hangs around our necks. To compromise is to evade the crucial issue. I call to action! Let us speak for the dawn.”[6]

     A couple of decades later, Lawson again emphasized the role that the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity could and should play in the fight for civil rights:

“The Fraternity’s record in the struggle for civil rights shows that in the best multi-talented Renaissance tradition we have been participants, not silent spectators. In point of fact, leaders of Alpha Phi Alpha, long have summoned the people toward the horizons of hope – hope for access to all of life’s chances, particularly full employment and economic growth in our automated society.”[7]

     The Alphas did not limit their efforts to uplift African Americans to courtrooms. Programs like the “Go to High School – Go to College” initiative, that started in 1920, motivated youth to stay in school.  Also, before the national voter registration movements of the 1960s, the Alphas developed a nation-wide campaign “A Voteless People is a Hopeless People.” The fraternity organized and financially funded numerous voting rights initiatives in their history.

     We would be remiss if we did not mention that the fraternity sponsors an annual Belford V. Lawson Oratorical Contest, to honor its namesake and to encourage young orators. The award is dedicated to “keep alive for generations to come the spirit of Belford Lawson and to kindle, as he did, another generation of young talented Black men who will gaze upon the Alpha legacy of leadership and service and say, ‘we can and we must … carry on!’”[8] Not surprisingly, many of the orations by the young Alpha men are calls for racial equality in the United States.

Franklin Hughes and David Pilgrim
Jim Crow Museum 


[1]Paul E. Brown, Lopez D. Matthews, Jr., Frederick Nickens IV, and Ronald Anthony Mills, Sr., The History of Alpha Phi Alpha: Origins of the Eastern Region (The Foundation Publishers: Baltimore, Maryland, 2017), 22.

[2]Sphinx October 1963 “Alpha Phi Alpha and the Civil Rights Revolution” pg.6

<[3]Sphinx October 1963 “Alpha Phi Alpha and the Civil Rights Revolution” pg.6

[4]Kenneth Robert Janken, Rayford W. Logan and the Dilemma of the African American Intellectual (University of Massachusetts Press, 1997), 99.

[5]Sphinx Fall 1973 Volume 59 Number 2 page 32.

[6]Gregory Parks, editor, Black Greek-letter Organizations in the Twenty-First Century: Our Fight Has Just Begun (University Press of Kentucky, 2008), 148.

[7]Sphinx October 1963 “Alpha Phi Alpha and the Civil Rights Revolution” pg.6

[8]Gregory Parks and Stefan M. Bradley, Alpha Phi Alpha: A Legacy of Greatness, The Demands of Transcendence (University of Kentucky Press, 2012), 126.