Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. General President Herman "Skip" Mason addresses members of the fraternity in Las Vegas, NV., instead of in Phoenix, AZ. The general convention was planned for Phoenix, but after the new immigration bill was signed into law by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer in April, the fraternity's Board of Directors felt compelled to boycott Arizona. (Photo by Jeff Lewis)
Alpha Phi Alpha convention held in Las Vegas because of boycott of the State of Arizona
By Jason Lewis
Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. has led from the forefront since December 1906, and once again has taken a lead role in the fight against racial injustice.
Last week the fraternity's General Convention was scheduled to be held in Phoenix, Arizona. When Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed the state's immigration bill (SB 1070) into law in late April, Alpha Phi Alpha once again felt the need to take a stand.
"The questions of a person's immigration status may have presented some harm and danger to some of us who would convene in the city of Phoenix and in the state of Arizona," said Herman "Skip" Mason, General President of Alpha Phi Alpha.
Alpha Phi Alpha is historically black, and was the first integrated fraternity in the nation's history and additionally includes Hispanic along with other races and ethnicities, among the 200,000 members initiated in its 100+ year history.
The decision to move the convention was extremely difficult due to the apparent financial ramifications. It would cost thousands of dollars to break certain contracts in The City of Phoenix alone. Mason said that cost did contribute to the discussion, but the Board of Directors believed that the cost would not be the sole driving force.
"The Board of Directors voted to move the convention out of Phoenix," Mason said. "I met with our Director of Conventions and General Counsel and asked for a review our contractual obligations with the hotel and other entities. I called our board members to get a sense of their thoughts about a possible move. Then late one evening I picked up two books. The first was The Bible, and the second, The History of Alpha Phi Alpha, to explore how man has dealt with conflict and crisis during challenging times. I could hear the voices of Alpha Brothers W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Thurgood Marshall, Jesse Owens, and Martin Luther King Jr., men who stood up in a time of change. And we voted to move."
Mason went on to say, "We'd either advance forward as one of the leading fraternities and organizations of African American men, or we would move backwards. And we know that Alpha men take no backward steps."
The fraternity's General Counsel is currently in negotiations for restructuring certain contractual agreements with entities in the City of Phoenix.
After this decision went public, other organizations followed Alpha Phi Alpha's lead. The National Urban League immediately pulled Phoenix from consideration for its 2012 conference. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio VIllaraigosa supported a boycott of Arizona. The Boston City Council voted to pull investments from the state of Arizona. The Mayor of St. Paul, Minnesota banned all city-funded travel to Arizona. Oakland city council members voted to boycott Arizona businesses.
Major League Baseball is under pressure to take the 2011 All-Star Game out of Phoenix, much like the National Football League did in 1993 when Arizona refused to recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a holiday. Both the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee are being pressed to remove Phoenix from consideration as sites for their 2012 national conventions.
Whether the Alpha convention was to be in held in Phoenix under racial turmoil or under the bright lights of Las Vegas, the work of the fraternity needed to be completed. High profile members of the fraternity including Ambassador Andrew Young, Congressman Robert C. "Bobby" Scott from Virginia, and Senator Roland W. Burris from Illinois gave inspiring speeches during the event in Las Vegas.
One of the most inspiring moments was a video shown to the brothers of Alpha Phi Alpha, depicting the nearly completed, 30 foot tall statue of Brother Martin Luther King, anticipated to stand on the National Mall in Washington D.C. The King Memorial site is a four-acre plot on the north east corner of the Tidal Basin within the precinct of the Jefferson Memorial and north of the memorial to President Roosevelt.
The approved site creates a visual "line of leadership" from the Lincoln Memorial, where King gave his famous "I Have A Dream" speech, to the Jefferson Memorial.
The King Memorial is dear to the hearts of every member of Alpha Phi Alpha, not only because King was initiated into the fraternity, but also because Alpha Phi Alpha has spearheaded this project.
Past General President of Alpha Phi Alpha Harry E. Johnson serves as the President and CEO of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation.
The project will cost $120 million, of which the foundation has already raised $107 million. The memorial will be dedicated on August 28, 2011.
"Brothers, you all are going to be so proud next year when we dedicate this memorial to the first man of peace, the first man of color, and to the only Alpha man who will be standing on the Mall," Johnson said.
Alpha Phi Alpha is not only busy in Washington D.C., but also in Haiti, where a number of brothers traveled to lend their support after the devastating earthquake earlier this year.
The fraternity could have just sent contributions to some of the charity organizations, but Mason did not feel like that was enough. He felt the need for brothers to travel there and lend helping hands.
"Why?" Mason asked. "Because of the line in the poem 'He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother,' by Brother Freeman Montague Jr. that I often quote: "There is nothing in this whole wide world, we wouldn't do for one another.'"
Brother Joseph Gambrell, M.D. from Beta Psi Lambda Chapter (Los Angeles), and Mu Sigma Lambda Chapter (Culver City/Baldwin Hills), was one of the brothers who made the trip to help down in Haiti.
"I had the opportunity to be in Haiti 19 days after the earthquake," Gambrell said. "The search and rescue and emergency medical services had been rendered but the capital was far from healed. Collapsed buildings still held undiscovered and unrecovered bodies."
The fraternity's efforts in Haiti are far from over. Several members who are architects and contractors will return to an unfinished school to complete renderings and cost out what it will take to finish an architecturally sound and efficient school and clinic, to be named The Alpha Academy and Clinic in Haiti.
The efforts to help others outside of the Unites States is strong, as well as the efforts to help our own people within the United States.
While in Las Vegas Brother Dr. Bill Releford of The Eta Pi Lambda Chapter (Pasadena) served the community with The Black Barbershop Health Outreach Program, created in 2007.
"The purpose of this event is to address health care disparities in African-American men," Releford said. African-American men have the lowest life expectancy of any group in this country. We die from preventable diseases, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and prostate cancer. Our goal is to bring healthcare resources to a community lacking significant health care resources."
Releford realized that many people do not have health insurance, and they do not have access to vital tests, including those for high blood pressure and diabetes. He is making it easier for community members to receive these tests and their results at local barbershops.
The Black Barbershop Health Outreach Program has screened over 10,000 men in 23 cities since 2007. The screenings are performed at barbershops because of the historical association of black men and barbershops as a gathering place of grooming, discussion and healing.
The change in venue did not affect the completion of the business of Alpha Phi Alpha in any way, and the excitement of a trip to Las Vegas lifted the fraternal spirit to higher levels.
"At the end of the day," Beta Psi Lambda Chapter (Los Angeles) President, Dr. Charles P. Loeb, III noted, "We brothers of our country's first predominately black male fraternity, are responsible for asking ourselves the difficult question. What cost dignity? Absolutely priceless. And so it goes."