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A Cadre of Pink and Green

Harris’ Secret Weapon: Her Sorority

NASHVILLE--It had been on the calendar for months, the annual leadership conference of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.

But the talk at the gathering of 8,000 women the other weekend was about far more than the usual chapter building, catching up and breaking out outfits in the organization’s signature pink and green: U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, who joined the sorority as a college student, had just resurrected the ghost of segregation and busing against former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. in a Democratic presidential debate.

The moment brought a sense of pride and some apprehension about what Mrs. Harris’ campaign would hold.

Younger members said Mrs. Harris represented a hope for the future. “She just reminds me to be fearless in the pursuit of my goals,” said Shannon Burge, 31, a Denver sales manager.

Older members said Mrs. Harris’ challenge to Mr. Biden last week--over his opposition to busing during the 1970’s--was evidence that years of sacrifice had not been in vain. “I went to segregated schools,” said Miriam Joyner Smith, 59, who worked in the insurance industry in Tampa.

“I experienced integration. It wasn’t easy, We’re just excited and proud because she represents us well.”

Mrs. Harris didn’t attend the conference, which began the night of the debate, but provided a video to be shown at the event that bore a striking resemblance to a campaign call to action, while never actually mentioning her presidential ambitions.

“We have a fight ahead of us, and we cannot afford to sit it out,” Mrs. Harris said in the video, referring to gun violence, the low pay and high maternal mortality rate among Black women, and new laws that stymie access to the ballot box.

“Simply put, the women of Alpha Kappa Alpha have forged paths and led in just about every space imaginable,” she said in the video. Just not, yet, in the space Mrs. Harris is imagining: the White House. It’s possible AKA membership will be an advantage there.

The group’s sheer numbers, organization and multimillion-dollar budget suggest a potential secret weapon in the campaign arsenal of Mrs. Harris, who joined the sorority while an undergraduate at Howard University. She has called AKA a major influence in her life.

In June, Mrs. Harris tweeted: “Being a graduate of @HowardU and a proud member of @akasorority1908 changed my life” as she announced an effort to engage and mobilize students and alumni from historically Black colleges and universities, as well as members of historically Black Greek organizations.

In addition to Mrs. Harris, who personally addressed members at meetings of the organization earlier this year, seven House of Representatives members are also AKA sisters.

For Denine Bratcher, 50, who was attending the conference from Germany, Mrs. Harris’ emergence as a presidential contender isn’t the least bit surprising.

“We are women who are pioneers. We’re making strides, making waves for the future,” said Mrs. Bratcher, who teaches the children of U.S. military families. “That’s what Alpha Kappa Alpha women do. We make strides.”

If the next stride is to the White House, though, it will be without AKA’s official endorsement, according to its president, Glenda Glover, who also serves as the president of Tennessee State University. In an interview wedged in the middle of a busy day during the conference here, Dr. Glover, dressed in a pink suit and accompanied by an entourage, pointed out that, as a nonprofit, the sorority avoids involvement in partisan politics.

With about 300,000 members, AKA is capable of formidable fund-raising outside of politics. Simply by texting and emailing members on one day last year, the group raised more than $1.3 million for historically Black colleges. Records show that the annual budget of the national organization and its affiliates, including an educational endowment, exceeds $75 million.

AKA is also known for its work in get-out-the-vote operations. Approximately 17,000 members live in the South Atlantic region, which includes South Carolina, an early primary state. Mrs. Harris’ campaign announced on Friday that she had picked up the endorsement of Gloria Boozer, a former sorority official from Spartanburg.

The focus of the weekend meeting here at the Opryland resort and convention center was leadership, with dozens of panels offering how-to advice. They ranged from “Refugee Access to Advanced Education: Securing and Saving the ..To read more, subscribe to the blackchronicle newspaper