Image of black Greek houses is focus of forum

Wednesday, March 10, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:18 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Once upon a time, when hip-hop music was “old school,” rapper Ice-T rhymed ominously about the perils of gang warfare over “Colors” in South Central Los Angeles. Those streets, hopefully, would be a far cry from the atmosphere of most college campuses.

Based on this notion, MU’s chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., decided to enter the fray and ask, “Have Black Greeks Become Gangs?” to an audience of at least 100 students and Columbia residents Tuesday evening.

The idea of equating historically black fraternities and sororities to gangs, for many members, is anathema.

Moderator Vernon Mitchell, 25, said the purpose was to draw participants into a real discussion about the nature of these organizations.

“There’s still a lot of ignorance about who we are,” Mitchell said.

Alpha Phi Alpha, founded in 1906 by seven black students at Cornell University, boasts such members as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., jazz musician Duke Ellington, activist Paul Robeson, Cornell West, former New York Mayor David Dinkins and UM system President Elson Floyd, who offered the greeting at the forum Tuesday evening.

While the legacies of black Greek-letter organizations are tied to honor, rites of passage, academic achievement and community service, questions linger over perceptions of in-fighting between organizations and accusations of hazing.

Forum panelists, drawn from a wide spectrum of positions at the university and the local community, offered opinions on whether a gang mentality has permeated the network enough to destroy the reputation these groups have worked to establish over the last 90 or more years.

Former NFL player Demetrius Johnson said he left his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, for a while after he graduated from MU because he felt the focus of the chapter diverged from what he wanted it to do.

Like Johnson, none of the panelists, also members of Greek letter organizations, shied away from criticizing individual behavior — although most said that the good works performed by these organizations should not be overshadowed.

They also emphasized, like other collegiate Greek letter organizations, that the conduct of individual members and their treatment of initiates is neither a new issue, nor one that is strictly race-based. It’s a character issue.

The forum was sponsored as part of Alpha Phi Alpha’s annual Alpha Week activities.

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