Voting rights is shaping up to be one of the major issues of 2022 and legislators are preparing for the fight against voter suppression and election subversion. But Black Greek-letter organizations, groups that have historically backed voter rights in Black communities for many decades, say they are ready to again play a major role in defending those rights.
January is a month in which several of the organizations celebrate their Founders’ Days, including Kappa Alpha Psi (Jan. 5), Phi Beta Sigma (Jan. 9), Delta Sigma Theta (Jan. 13), Alpha Kappa Alpha (Jan. 15), and Zeta Phi Beta (Jan. 16). They have joined other member groups of the National Pan-Hellenic Council; Alpha Phi Alpha, Omega Psi Phi, Sigma Gamma Rho, and Iota Phi Theta, popularly known as the “Divine Nine” in loudly voicing a demand that voter rights be protected.
In April, the NPHC released a collective statement denouncing the wave of state voter suppression legislation in which Republican-led legislatures began chipping away at voting rights in the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s 2020 election defeat. Several of those states, including Georgia and Arizona, are enacting restrictive voting laws targeting voters of color in time for the 2022 midterm elections.
“These efforts come only two months after the historic win of the US Senate run-off elections [in Georgia]. Lawmakers across the country instantly reverted to their old tricks of using legislation to fuel oppression and hate. These voter suppression bills also roll back much of the progress achieved under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act,” the statement said, signed by the nine organization presidents.
The NPHC Council of Presidents met in October with President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, (who is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha), and other administration officials to discuss the policies that concern the Black community, including the need for voting rights legislation. The result was a monthly meeting with White House Senior Adviser Cedric Richmond, which is added to a weekly “Black stakeholders” call, according to Politico.
This year though as they celebrate their anniversaries, the organizations are making a point to show their support for voter rights in the tradition of civil rights luminaries that were part of the organizations like John Lewis (Phi Beta Sigma) Dorothy Height (Delta Sigma Theta) and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Alpha Phi Alpha)
Dr. Willis L. Lonzer III, general president of Alpha Phi Alpha, joined in the statement condemning GOP voter suppression legislation. He told BET.com that the Alphas are partnering with other Divine 9 organizations, as well as civil rights groups like the NAACP and National Urban League to advocate for voting rights at state legislatures across the nation.
“We have an ongoing strategy, and we're still developing it because, as you know, this is pretty difficult. But we have to be persistent,” he said.
Part of that evolving strategy is using the courts to defend voting rights. On Dec. 30, 2021, the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Georgia and the law firm WilmerHale filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the Alphas and the Sixth District of the AME Church. The suit alleges that Georgia’s newly drawn electoral district lines violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Alpha Kappa Alpha said the sorority joined two lawsuits in Georgia. Recently, its Arizona chapter signed on to a federal suit with a coalition of voting rights groups to challenge newly passed Arizona statutes that would disenfranchise voters of color in the state.
Delta Sigma Theta is also confronting voter suppression with legal action. The sorority is a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit filed on March 29, 2021, against Georgia’s sweeping voter suppression law that makes it more difficult for voters, especially voters of color, to cast a ballot. The sorority is also a plaintiff in a similar federal lawsuit in Texas filed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.
“For certain states to adopt such sweeping legislation to block the right to vote is unthinkable yet predictable, given our nation's history,” the sorority said in a statement to BET.com, adding that the organization has “fought against voter suppression legislation and various other oppressive tactics and schemes for 109 years.”
The Deltas mobilize its members through its National Social Action Commission. On an annual basis, Deltas across the nation meet with legislative leaders, share the priorities that matter to their communities and advocate for change through its legislative conference called Delta Days at the Nation’s Capital.
“We remain ready to use our voice and influence whenever there are insidious attempts to suppress the votes of citizens of color,” the organization said.
Phi Beta Sigma, which celebrated 108 years of service, launched “Fasting for Voters Rights” initiative on Monday, Jan. 10. International President, Chris V. Rey, fasted for 24 hours Monday and passed the all-liquid diet baton to Malwan Johnson, the organization’s social action director for the next 24 hours. Johnson passed it to the next Sigma brother, and the act will continue from member to member until lawmakers pass voting rights legislation.
“We’re doing this to join our brother Joe Madison, the ‘Black Eagle,’ in his hunger strike to put pressure on the Senate to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act,” Johnson told BET.com. “It’s a way to show our support for Joe Madison, as well as a call to action.”
Madison, a popular morning talk show on SiriusXM radio as well as a civil rights and human rights activist, spoke previously with BET.com about the hunger strike that he began in November.
“Voting is just one of the fundamental rights, and we've seen it being desecrated ever since President Biden got elected,” Johnson said.
Across the board, the Divine Nine have the voting rights struggle rooted in their DNA code.
“This weekend, we're going to celebrate our 114th anniversary. And so it is part of our ongoing agenda for each of our local chapters to participate,” Roslyn M. Brock, Alpha Kappa Alpha’s International Connection/Social Action Committee chair, told BET.com. “We have under our current leadership Dr. Glenda Glover, who is the president of Tennessee State University, an initiative called AKAs L.E.A.D. (learn, empower, advocate and decide). We learn, empower, advocate and decide public policy and social justice issues that are critical, not only to Black women but to the African American community broadly.”
To that end, the AKAs have partnered with civil rights organizations, Black women leaders and other allies to press for the passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the Freedom to Vote Act. Also, all the chapters nationwide actively engage in planning “AKA Days” at their state capitals for legislative engagement and mobilization.
“We understand uniquely how important it is for our communities to vote, as it relates to issues around health care, around education, around economic security, environmental issues,” Brock added.
“Iotas have always been aligned with the voting rights struggle,” Walter L. Fields, communications director for Iota Phi Theta, told BET.com. “Our founding occurred just a month after the March on Washington and three months after the assassination of Medgar Evers.”
Voting rights activism and education is an ongoing activity for the Iotas, including a collaboration with fellow Diving Nine member Sigma Gamma Rho sorority under an initiative called “Much More than a Hashtag.”
To address stalled voting rights legislation, the Iotas are encouraging and supporting its members to communicate with Senate leaders and senators who oppose voting rights legislation.
Speaking Dec. 17 at South Carolina State University’s commencement ceremony, Biden pledged to make every effort to push the stalled John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the Freedom to Vote Act through the Senate.
The chamber is split evenly, 50-50, between Democrats and Republicans. To advance in the Senate under the current filibuster rule, several Republicans must cross party lines. At the same time, Democrats must win the support of conservative Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, wrote a letter to his Senate colleagues on Jan. 3 saying that they will vote no later than the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, Jan. 17, on changing Senate rules if GOP members continued to block voting rights legislation.
Meanwhile, Johnson said the Sigmas are advocating for the “No Celebration without Legislation” initiative led by Martin Luther King III. Voting rights groups plan to march in Phoenix and the nation’s capital on his father’s birthday (Jan. 15) and the national holiday, Jan. 17.
“We are reaching out to our brothers in Arizona, brothers in Georgia, as well as our brothers in D.C. to get involved,” Johnson said. “Too many people have fought and died for our right to vote, so we cannot sit idly by and watch states pass restrictive laws aimed at suppressing people’s access to the ballot box.”