Kamala’s private army: Why Harris’ HBCU, AKA affiliations could help Biden’s campaign

When it comes to mobilizing Black voters, Kamala Harris has something even President Barack Obama didn’t have as America’s first Black president.

Her degree from Howard University, a historically Black university, and membership in Alpha Kappa Alpha, the nation’s oldest Black sorority, could give her an advantage among loyal members and alumni, including in Delaware.

“It’s a part of Black America that most Americans are not aware of,” Akwasi Osei, a political science and history professor at Delaware State University, said about the Greek organization. “And it is huge.”

It could be the blessing Joe Biden’s campaign needs after Black voter turnout dropped in 2016. Osei expects Harris to revitalize turnout to match, if not surpass, historic levels during Obama’s presidential bids.

Since her presidential bid last year, members of the sorority have formed into Harris’ unofficial private army.

California Sen. Kamala Harris appears at a fundraiser for Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, of which she is a member,  on Jan. 25, 2019, in Columbia, S.C.

It’s one of nine service-oriented Black sororities and fraternities known as the Divine Nine, and those familiar with the organizations said they should not be overlooked as a pervasive and organized sector of the Black community. AKA boasts more than 300,000 members, and for the first time, it is watching one of its own run for vice president. Harris joined the sorority in 1986.

“It is that level that I think Kamala has, as it were, tuned into,” Osei said. “And that is enough for some people to say, ‘I’m with her because I’m a Greek and I identify as such.’ “

AKA is active at Delaware State University, Wesley College and the University of Delaware. Sorority members drove from around the state Thursday to stand outside A.I. du Pont High School in Greenville, where Biden and Harris made their first joint appearance, in support of their sister.

“She has definitely energized the African American community because of her affiliations,” said  L. Germaine Cheatham-Hemphill, a DSU graduate and AKA member. “The HBCU (historically Black colleges and universities) community, for example, is tightknit, and it’s small, and it’s nurturing. … Greekdom, within that, is even deeper.”

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., left, is greeted by Alpha Kappa Alpha South Central Regional Director Katina Semien at the sorority's annual conference in New Orleans on April 19, 2019.

In other words, it transcends politics. Cheatham-Hemphill, who lives in Camden, compared the allegiance to a lifelong marriage.

“I don’t know that people really understand the real power of Greekdom in the African American community and the seriousness of it,” she said. “It stretches from teachers to preachers to lawyers to doctors to housewives, everybody. If you’re an AKA, if you’re Greek in any way, shape or form, you are buzzing. You are excited right now.”

The “friendly rivals” within the Divine Nine are coalescing around Harris, largely via social media. Members plan to galvanize their networks outside the Greek organizations and will probably throw money at Biden’s campaign.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks at the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority South Central Regional Conference in New Orleans,  April 19, 2019.

AKA includes other famous members such as Jada Pinkett-Smith, Phylicia Rashad and Toni Morrison. To have one of their own taking the national stage as the potential vice president is another level.

“I would daresay it was immediate,” Cheatham-Hemphill said about members’ organizing around Harris. “One, it was ‘Congratulations to us as AKAs for a member of our sorority being named to this role.’ And number two it was, ‘All right, everybody get together to get out to vote.’ … The mobilization is going to be amazing.”

When Harris ran for president in 2019, AKA members hosted fundraisers, donated money and showed up to campaign events.

California Sen. Kamala Harris appears at the Pink Ice Gala, hosted by the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority on  Jan. 25, 2019, in Columbia, S.C. Harris is a member of the sorority.

Before Cheatham-Hemphill learned that Harris was her sorority sister, she was attracted to her personality and politics, watching her question Supreme Court nominees and Trump administration members such as Attorney General William Barr in the Senate. Once she found out, it made perfect sense.

“She’s one of us,” Cheatham-Hemphill said. “She’s a leader. She’s an alpha woman. She’s a go-getter.”

Obama, who graduated from Columbia and Harvard, gave communities of color unprecedented hope that a Black man could be president. Delaware State University professor Alexa Silver said Harris’ degree “gives credence” to the value of an education from a historically Black school, especially for minority students who don’t know how far the degree might take them.

“There’s just been more talk in the news about HBCUs, and most people don’t even know what they are, and most people don’t even think about what they mean,” she said. “This is an opportunity for people to see how colleges devoted to helping particular portions of the population are creating leaders. It’s not just that we’re giving students who aren’t as strong an opportunity to get a college degree. No, we’re creating future leaders.”

When classes resume, Silver said, she expects her students – especially women of color – will feel hopeful about Harris and possibly more empowered than in 2008 when Obama was elected.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., is introduced as former Vice President Joe Biden's running mate at A.I. du Pont High School in Greenville, Del., on  Aug. 12.

The day after Obama’s election 12 years ago, Silver said, she arrived to teach her survey history class where her 30 or so freshman and sophomore DSU students typically sauntered in and threw themselves down into their chairs. That day, she remembers, they walked in lighter with smiles on their faces.

“They just kind of emanated this sense of hope that something that no one ever thought could happen,” she said. “For those who had actually gone home and voted, they were feeling super proud of themselves. I just remember it was the happiest day of teaching I ever had. Just to see the looks on their faces, the level of engagement.”

It was an opportunity for Silver to remind them about the importance of voting and that America’s political system of representative democracy, though it’s not perfect, does work.


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