In honor of what would have been Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 88th birthday, we remember his life, achievements and legacy, which prevails to this day.
Dr. King was one of the prominent members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. “Born in the shadow of slavery and on the lap of disenfranchisement,” Alpha Phi Alpha—like other black Greek-letter organizations—was founded to instill a spirit of high academic achievement and intellectualism, foster meaningful and lifelong ties, and racially uplift those brothers who would be initiated into its ranks.
In addition to Dr. King, the organization brought together and shaped such distinguished men as Cornel West, Thurgood Marshall, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., W. E. B. DuBois, Roland Martin, Whitney Young, and Paul Robeson.
In Alpha Phi Alpha: A Legacy of Greatness, the Demands of Transcendence, editors Gregory S. Parks, Stefan M. Bradley and other contributing authors analyze and discuss the fraternity, its history and its impact on civil rights. In remembrance of Dr. King, one of the fraternity’s most esteemed brothers, here is an excerpt:
Considering the mindset of President Eisenhower and considering the mindset of hostile southern whites in the wake of the Brown decision, when African Americans in Montgomery, Alabama decided in December, 1955 to protest against discriminatory treatment on city buses, it took more courage than is often appreciated. While the subsequent 1955-1956 “Montgomery Bus Boycott” was truly a community endeavor, from an organizational standpoint, someone had to serve as the spokesman and titular leader of this movement. To his distinct credit and honor (and in the highest spirit of Alpha), Martin Luther King, Jr. (then a young minister with a variety of other commitments) did not decline the opportunity, when asked, to serve the community.
The year 1956 not only witnessed the transformation of the “Montgomery Bus Boycott” from a local story to an international phenomenon, but also witnessed the 50th Anniversary of Alpha Phi Alpha. Appropriately, and as a way to further honor the social activist spirit of the founders (three of whom were in attendance), the gala 50th Anniversary Convention, convened from August 7-11, included a special recognition of the work of Dr. King.
At the August 11, 1956 banquet, King, received the Fraternity’s highest honor, The Alpha Award of Honor. Moreover, before receiving this recognition, Brother King delivered the banquet’s keynote address entitled “The Birth of a New Age.”
King began his remarks by thanking the Fraternity in general, and President Frank L. Stanley in particular, “for the moral support and the financial contributions that you have given to those who walk the streets of Montgomery. I can assure that these things have given us renewed courage and vigor to carry on.” He further declared “I can remember those days, very dark days, when many of us confronted a trial in court and I could look out in the courtroom and see our very eminent General President. That made me feel very good as an Alpha man.”
While King made it clear that he did not want to talk solely about Montgomery, his remarks related to the general theme of “The Birth of a New Age,” included very illuminating assertions regarding the powerful nonviolent strategy of consumer boycotts:
As we move in this transition from the old age into the new we will have to rise up in protest. We will have to boycott at times, but let us remember that boycotts are not ends within themselves. A boycott is just a means to an end. A boycott is merely a means to say, ‘I don’t like it.’ It is merely a means to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor but the end is reconciliation. The end is the creation of a beloved community.
Significantly, King’s remarks regarding “The Birth of a New Age” also provided further vindication for Fraternity members who believed that freedom was not free (and that funds spent on social action programs was money well-spent):
…in order to gain this freedom and move away from the cycles of segregation we have got to go down in our pockets and give some money. I assure you that integration is not some lavish gift that the white man will pass out on a silver platter while the Negro merely furnishes the appetite…We cannot use the excuse any more that we don’t have the money. The national income of the Negro is now is more than 16 billion dollars, more than the national income of Canada…now let us use our money for something lasting, not erely for extravagancies.
Immediately after King’s speech, which received a rousing ovation, Frank L. Stanley proudly shared with the audience the details of the Fraternity’s financial support for King and his movement. As Charles H. Wesley described this moment in Alpha history: “President Stanley stated that the fraternity had initially given the Montgomery Improvement Association $1,000, and over $2,000 had been sent from the chapters, and $1,500 will be sent from this convention, totaling $4,500 to the Montgomery, Alabama project.”