The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had two siblings but thousands of brothers. The preacher, scholar and civil rights leader became a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., the first and oldest collegiate fraternity for African American men, on June 22nd 1952. King, who studied at Morehouse College in Atlanta as a teenager, was pursuing his Doctorate in Philosophy at Boston University when he was initiated at the Sigma Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha seated in Boston. He was 23 years old.
In a BET documentary on Dr. King and his membership in Alpha, one of his fellow initiates, or line brothers, recalled King standing out amongst the pledges because he was older, almost as old as some of the big brothers. “The pledge group met at my grandfather’s house,” Attorney Herman W. Hemingway shared. He was a sophomore at Brandeis college at the time. “One of the last to show up was Dr. King. We were very interested to see how the big brothers would treat him since he was around the same age as the brothers.”
King was indeed an accomplished young man, having already obtained two Bachelor degrees from Morehouse and Crozer Theological Seminary, as well as having been appointed assistant pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. But he hadn’t yet achieved national notoriety at the time of his initiation into Alpha. He was “just another inductee” according to Dr. James Huger, the General Secretary who signed his shingle, the official certificate of his membership in the Fraternity.
But Dr. King quickly made a name for himself in the Fraternity and the nation. In 1953 he married Coretta Scott (who later became an honorary member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority in 1967) and moved from Boston to Montgomery Alabama. Became pastor of Dexter Avenue Church where his inspirational sermons caught the attention of Black editors at newspapers around the country. In 1955 he not only received his doctorate from Boston University, but also became the president of the Montgomery Improvement Association after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycotts.
Dr. King had the support of Alpha Phi Alpha throughout the boycott. In February of 1956 Frank L. Stanley, General President of the Fraternity and publisher of the Louiseville Defender wrote to King saying, “Alpha is proud of the leadership that you have given to the bus segregation protest movement in your city. We realize the trying hours you are experiencing as the object of a white council-controlled police department, and bomb wielding segregationists. But by the grace of God, you have been spared to continue the fight. Twenty-four thousand Alphas and millions of other Negroes fight with you.”
The Fraternity’s verbal assistance was backed financially when they presented the Montgomery Improvement Association with a check for $1000 at a March meeting and were present in court during his trial.
Later that summer, Dr. King was invited to speak at the 50th Anniversary Convention held in Buffalo on August 11 1956. He had just testified at the Democtratic National Convention in Chicago, but was eager and pleased to receive the Alpha Award of Honor from his brothers.
“As I look over the audience I see so many familiar faces and so many dear friends that it is a real pleasure to be here,” he began in his address. “I only regret that certain responsibilities elsewhere made it impossible for me to be in on the other part of the sessions…I am very happy to share the platform with so many distinguished Alpha men and so many distinguished American citizens and I say once more that this is a high moment in my life.”
Dr. King continues to inspire his Alpha brothers as the organization strives to be a “School for the better making of men” after 114 years of service. Just this year Reverend Raphael Warnock, a fellow Morehouse man, is the latest member of Alpha Phi Alpha to take the national stage. The newly appointed senator won a tight runoff race in Georgia to become the first African American to represent Georgia in the Senate.
Warnock was the senior pastor of Douglas Memorial Community Church until 2005, when he became senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Ebenezer is the church where Dr. King was baptized in 1929.
Like King, Warnock became a member of Alpha while pursuing his education in the North East, being initiated at the Alpha Gamma Lambda Chapter in Harlem in 1993. He earned a Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 1994, followed by a Master of Philosophy degree and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in the field of systematic theology in 2006.
During a 2018 speech at a Baltimore Cathedral, Warnock said of King, “He was the best kind of patriot because he loved the country enough to tell the country the truth. Now is a time for truth-telling.”
May the truth not just set us free, but set us right.