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The Issue Is Service : Black Fraternity Sets Agenda That Includes Formulating Response to Riots


ANAHEIM — Dressed in shorts and Nike high tops and huddled over a map, the six guys looked more like tourists than future leaders of America.

By the lush pools of the Hilton hotel lobby, the talk was of social concerns daunting the African-American male. And then there was the matter of scoring tickets for the Arsenio Hall show.

It's the national convention of Alpha Phi Alpha, the country's oldest Greek-letter fraternity for blacks, and 1,000 of its 15,000 active members are here to chart next year's course in community service and education, male bonding and election of its national leadership. Oh--and did we mention some vacationing in the home of Disneyland and Hollywood?

"We're going to be taking care of fraternity business matters and trying to have as much pleasure and unboredom as possible," said Al Pearson, 25, a graduate of the University of the District of Columbia. His frat brothers nodded.

Business and pleasure, the magic recipe for any great convention. And the fact that theirs is being held freeway close to the site of the country's worst civil disturbance this century is not lost on anyone here.

Among many issues on the Alpha burner will be racial justice and how to proceed in the aftermath of the riots that erupted after four Los Angeles policemen were found not guilty of charges connected with the beating of motorist Rodney King.

"I can't tell you what the final public policy positions will be, but I know there will be a statement about the justice system and how the trial was conducted (in the King case), and our displeasure with the trial," said Henry Ponder, outgoing general president of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. and president of Fiske College in Tennessee.

"The state of public health, housing, homelessness, the Haitian refugee problem--those are other things we'll be dealing with."

Huge issues, indeed, but then these are the frat brothers of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Most believe they are fortunate and feel a great responsibility to their community.

In a report on what it called "the endangered black male," the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People has found that one of four black men in his 20s is in jail, prison or on probation or parole, and that black men in inner-city neighborhoods are less likely to reach age 65 than men in Bangladesh.

"How to stop the violence" will be at the forefront of the fraternity's convention agenda, said Ozell Sutton, a former general president of Alpha and chair of its racial justice committee. Sutton is regional director of community relations services for the U.S. Department of Justice and is deeply involved in the Rebuild L.A. effort.

"We are gravely concerned with the violence in this country, and we are not ashamed to say it's involving our youth," Sutton said on the eve of the convention, which ends Saturday. "The leading cause of death among African-Americans 15 to 19 years old is homicide, and we're concerned about that."

A primary focus this year of the fraternity, Sutton said, is "reaching down and reaching back . . . calling on this group of successful (black) people and assisting people through these very dark and black days."

There are only four black fraternities (and four black sororities) nationally, and Alphas boast some of the nation's black heroes and leaders as members.

In addition to King, pledges have included the mayors of Oakland, Atlanta, Chicago and New York, state supreme court judges and U.S. Cabinet members, university presidents and brigadier generals. Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall is an Alpha Phi Alpha, as is William H. Gray III, a former congressman from Pennsylvania who now oversees the United Negro College Fund.

California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown is an Alpha. So is Lenny Wilkins, coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. The man who invented the traffic signal? He was an Alpha brother, too.

Alpha Phi Alpha was founded in 1906 as a study group by seven black Cornell University students seeking support and bonding they were missing at the predominantly white university in New York.

There are more than 700 chapters nationally, both for students and alumni, and most are in the South, home to most of the country's 117 historically black colleges.

Gray was the guest speaker at opening dinner Wednesday night, where leaders in civil rights and public service were also honored. They included John W. Mack of the Los Angeles Urban League and the Rev. Cecil L. (Chip) Murray, senior minister of First African Methodist Church of Los Angeles--the city's oldest black congregation and a center of aid and support after this spring's traumatic riots.

In fact, the national fraternity canceled a board meeting that was scheduled in Los Angeles shortly after the riots erupted, but the convention had been planned for Anaheim months before that, and the leadership decided not to relocate.

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