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January 98 Message
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"First of all; Servants of all; We shall transcend all."

Motto of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.

Part 2

Last month I quoted Jewell Brother Dr. Henry Arthur Callis’ 1941 statement that "the chief significance of Alpha Phi Alpha lies in its purpose to stimulate, develop, and cement an intelligent, trained leadership in the unending fight for freedom, equality and fraternity." Also cited was a passage from The Book of James that stated "show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works." I then went deep into the African cultural heritage of ancient Kemet (Egypt) and quoted Nefer-Seshem-Ra who said in part, "I have spoken truly and done right.
…I rescued the weak from those who were stronger as much as was in my power. I gave bread to the hungry, clothes to the naked and brought the boatless to dry land. I buried those who had no children and built a boat for those who were without one." Finally, I quoted Brother Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who based his brilliant Drum Major Instinct sermon on the issues of leadership and service when he cited Jesus’ statement to James and John, the sons of Zebedee, that "…whosoever will be great among you shall be your servant. And whosoever will be the chieftest, shall be servant of all."

It is noteworthy that in the oldest statement cited above, that of Nefer-Seshem-Ra from the Sixth Dynasty, 2300-2150 B.C., he opened by stating that he had "spoken truly and done right." The deep thinking of ancient Africa recognized that it was not enough to speak truth but you also must do truth. Similarly, it is not enough for an Alpha to profess that he is servant of all without doing servant of all.

In a 1948 speech, Brother Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois reflected on his phrase "The talented Tenth" of many years before and stated that he then had seen salvation for the problems of African Americans through intelligent leadership by college-trained men. He then said,

"Willingness to work and make personal sacrifice for solving these problems was of course, the first prerequisite and Sine Qua Non. I did not stress this, I assumed it.

"I assumed that with knowledge, sacrifice would automatically follow. In my youth and idealism, I did not realize that selfishness is even more natural than sacrifice. … [I] realized that it was quite possible that my plan of training a talented tenth might put in control and power, a group of selfish, self-indulgent, well-to-do men, whose basic interest in solving the Negro Problem was personal; personal freedom and unhampered enjoyment and use of the world, without any real care, or certainly no arousing care, as to what became of the mass of American Negroes, or of the mass of any people."

There are two examples in Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer Prize winning book Parting the Waters: America In the King Years 1954-63 that illustrate both the doing of service and posturing while doing nothing - both have an Alpha connection.

First, is Branch’s mention of Brother William Shortridge. Branch states that Brother King wrote a letter to Brother Shortridge stating that he planned to return to Birmingham in 1963 "for a real mobilization of our civil rights forces." Branch goes on the write, "Shortridge was Shuttlesworth’s treasurer and ‘connectional man,’ a whirlwind funeral director of Daddy King’s generation, Howard ’23, and King Jr.’s fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha. When night riders sprayed his home with gunfire the previous March, Shortridge had dived safely for cover behind the wall of his front porch as the first slug zipped through the front wall and knocked the telephone receiver from his wife’s hand. Since then, Shortridge had erected a small extra bedroom on the side of his porch to house the volunteers who guarded his house every night."

Second, Branch cites a speech given by Brother King at the Montgomery Improvement Association’s second annual Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change in which he "directed a vituperative tongue at his own peers. He told the audience of having attended a convention of his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, at which it was boastfully announced that the members spent $500,000 for liquor. ‘A handful of Negroes,’ King said acidly, ‘… spent more money in one week for whiskey than all of the 16 million Negroes spent that whole year for the United Negro College Fund and for the NAACP. Now that was a tragedy. That was a tragedy. … I know this is stinging…’ ."

And so while Brother Shortridge and others were willing to risk life itself in service to their community, Brother King, who also risked all, was compelled to acknowledge that others - in the context of the structure of Alpha - took strange pride in the irrelevance of their activities to serving the interests of the community.

Someone once said that while people are appalled to hear the teachings of Jesus questioned they seem to be even more troubled to see the teachings put into practice and accountability. In our time is it possible that any Alpha men would profess to be servants of all but would be troubled to be held even modestly accountable for being servants of all? Now that also would be a tragedy.



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