Black Greek organizations hurt by hazing
By Marlon A. Walker
FORT VALLEY - Brian Tukes spent more than a week at The Medical Center of Central Georgia in acute renal failure, the result of damage to his kidneys.
The injuries, police say, came at the hands of a member of the brotherhood he recently joined. That member, 21-year-old Bryson Amey, was arrested Dec. 7 and charged with felony aggravated battery.
His organization, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., is the second of nine national Black Greek Letter Organizations since November - and the third in eight years - to officially halt intake of new members. The cause: Worries about pledge processes in storied groups boasting membership that includes Jesse Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Bill Cosby, Toni Morrison and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The process is also being blamed for the deaths of at least three college students in the last decade, all of which occurred as they attempted to gain entry into the “Divine Nine.”
Black Greek beginnings
In the beginning, historians say there was no pledge process. Organizations popped up - beginning with Alpha Phi Alpha at Cornell University in 1906 - on college campuses across the country. At the time, membership consisted of “the black bourgeoisie,” those afforded the opportunity to attend college.
Other organizations quickly made a name for themselves across the country, and their appeal spread like wildfire. There are now five fraternities and four sororities.
New fraternity and sorority chapters emerged as blacks at other campuses across the nation expressed interest. Lawrence Ross, writer, author and historian on the origin of Black Greek Letter Organizations, said a member of the founding chapter would travel to other universities and judge the prospective chapters to see if the members properly represented the organizations.
A pledge process surfaced in the late 1940s and early 1950s in which new members would have their heads shaved, be lined up, given numbers and brought out in front of others as a sort of metamorphosis.
By the 1980s, the process became a six- to eight-week program, culminating in the crossing over into the organization.
The Membership Intake Process began in 1990 after all nine groups placed a moratorium on intake following the death of 18-year-old Joel Harris, a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Harris is said to have died during hazing at the hands of members of the school’s Alpha Phi Alpha chapter. MIP, as it’s called, was supposed to curb hazing practices, and avoid another death, Ross said.
In the most recent case involving Alpha Phi Alpha, police reports say Amey apparently used his hands, fists or other body parts in the assault on Tukes, who recently became a member of the fraternity. The police report indicates the events began in September and continued through Dec. 1. Tukes was admitted to the hospital Nov. 30, then transferred to the Medical Center. He is now out of the hospital. Neither Tukes nor his parents could be reached for comment.
Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc. has also halted intake nationwide after the death of 20-year-old Donnie Wade II, a student at Prairie View A&M University in Prairie View, Texas, on Oct. 20. Wade’s mother, Katrina Wade, has filed a $97 million civil lawsuit, seeking damages from the incidents that caused his death.
According to the lawsuit, filed in District Court in Dallas County, Texas, the man was placed on a bread-and-water diet and a strict exercise regimen that increased with intensity over time. Included in the lawsuit are the national fraternity, the student chapter, graduate chapter and the dean of the membership intake process for the local graduate chapter, among others.
Wade’s death is the first publicized incident associated with hazing in more than seven years.
California State University, Los Angeles students Kristin High and Kenitha Saafir drowned Sept. 9, 2002, while performing tasks with members of an underground chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. A $100 million wrongful death lawsuit filed by High’s family and settled out of court stated a group of women seeking entry into the sorority lost sleep carrying out missions and had been doing physical exercises. The two were said to be wearing jogging suits and shoes, and “blindfolded and tied by their hands and their bodies and led into the riptide conditions of the ocean.”
The school’s chapter of the sorority had been suspended previously because of issues with pledging.
Walter Kimbrough, president of Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark., said hazing incidents are happening too often. Kimbrough, who has worked with and researched fraternities and sororities for about 20 years, said last year’s crop of stories showed the phenomenon is getting even more out of hand.
“We’re making the same mistakes over and over again,” said Kimbrough, who joined Alpha Phi Alpha in 1986. “And in studying the news stories, it looks like (2009) was worse. When something happens, usually there’s a lull (in hazing stories). This year, it’s not been the case. There have been more cases. It’s scarier to me. And just for all the organizations, I think we dodge a lot of bullets. It’s like every five years, someone dies.
“Starting around 2007, I started saying it was time for somebody to die.”
A process with a purpose
Ask what the intake process is all about, and you will get more than one uniform answer.
Bottom line: It depends on whom you ask.
The intake process is in place to provide prospective members a way to learn about their organization of choice what they hadn’t been able to learn beforehand, said Marco McMillian, the international executive director of Phi Beta Sigma, based out of Washington, D.C. Before MIP, McMillian said earlier processes included events giving pledging brothers or sisters a chance to better bond with each other.
“Some organizations had earlier conversations moving from the pledge culture or mentality ... to a more or less cumbersome process,” said McMillian, who became a member in the spring of 1999. “Part of our process now is more historical so (prospective brothers) can have some perspective, to get them acclimated to the business affairs and culture of the organization.”
Jim Story of Montezuma said the intake process is made difficult - and should continue to be so - because it is built to produce men and women of stature and influence, and deter those only on board for selfish reasons.
“When it comes up (in the media) as hazing, all people see it as are the dire consequences that exist,” said Story, who will celebrate 29 years as a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc. in the fall. “There are a lot of men who successfully complete the process. We can point out the deficiencies of any organization today. But on the grander and larger scale, by the same efforts, the public needs to know the process wasn’t designed as a hazing ritual.”
Ask some organization leaders, and they’ll tell you that hazing practices shouldn’t be going on at all.
“Our membership intake process is educational in its structure and purpose and mission,” said Barbara McKinzie, international president for Alpha Kappa Alpha. “Think of it this way: What someone may know about or learn about an organization, they learn about it through people they know and the work hopefully they see being demonstrated in the community. When someone has accepted an invitation to become a member, they only know whatever it is that I’ve just described.”
McKinzie said society and media representation of Greek organizations after incidents such as hazing surface offer a “broad brush approach” to the groups in general, giving the impression the events that have taken place are acceptable.
Not so, she said.
“Yes, we have had instances of members of ours who have not followed our rules and policies and participated in hazing,” said McKinzie, who became a member in1973. “But that’s just the fact. Our rules and policies prohibit hazing and I think our membership numbers, the incidents of hazing and our legacy of service prove we are not the one or two cases of members who have disrespected and violated our rules.
“People should only judge after they’ve been duly informed.”
Educational materials are given to officials on campuses where AKA chapters are present, she said. When students come to interest meetings about AKA, they’re given the organization’s policy on hazing, which strictly says they don’t condone it.
What those hopefuls do with the information is up to them, she said.
“In spite of our efforts to educate people,” she said, “you still have people who would allow themselves to be subjected to that type of behavior.”
Kimbrough says the problem is that what should be derived from the process - lifelong bonds and brotherhood - hasn’t been quantified.
“We’ve got to look at what’s the goal of the process,” he said. “And then, how do we measure if the process works?”
Ross said the more brutal pledging has come from false myths and the belief that the intake process was a soft way to gain access.
“One of the consequences (of the intake process) was there wasn’t a lot of buy-in,” said Ross, who pledged with five other brothers in 1985. “Parallel underground processes really perverted that. People started creating their own idea of what real pledging was.“Over decades, myths built up a false sense that pledging quantifiably proves something.”
Talks have commenced among Alpha Phi Alpha officials about how to proceed during the nationwide moratorium, and how to work the kinks out of the intake process. But to break down the myths - and effectively end hazing - Ross said drastic action may be the only approach.
“If Alpha wants to be revolutionary in the lead, initiate people and quantify how we want them,” he said. “And some chapters are going to have to be let go.”
Copyright 2010 The McClatchy Company.