In a primary debate Sunday night, 39-year-old Rep. Joe Kennedy III was asked again about his decision to join a famously racist, Robert E. Lee-revering fraternity in the early 2000s and why he’d only recently made the decision to disaffiliate himself from it. Kennedy punted again, saying that “I wish I hadn’t joined” but that his Stanford chapter of Kappa Alpha “had almost no relation with the national organization, and had none of the behaviors or traditions of that national organization,” while suggesting that he knew nothing about those behaviors or traditions while he was an undergrad.
Those were the same talking points he’d used in June, on the carefully put-together Facebook Live forum in which he’d first announced that he’d disaffiliated himself, in a letter sent privately last year, from the fraternity, due to its “racist roots and a record of racist actions to this day.” The ambitious scion of America’s most famous political dynasty still hasn’t explained why he’d waited nearly 20 years, until he was preparing to run for a U.S. Senate seat, to separate himself from the group.
Five of Kennedy’s former fraternity brothers—two of whom are Black, and all of whom had also cut ties with the group last year—joined him on the virtual panel, each taking pains to distinguish the “inclusive and diverse” Stanford University Kappa Alpha chapter they joined as undergraduates from the “deeply problematic” national organization. When Nathaniel Fernhoff, chapter president during the group’s college days, stated their collective decision to join Kappa Alpha was mostly to evade Stanford’s housing lottery and instead “live with our buddies,” a couple of the others nodded in agreement. Kennedy, who lamented his naïveté in not having “done the homework” on the frat beyond the Stanford chapter, also seemed just slightly annoyed he hadn’t foreseen his name appearing on the frat’s “Famous Alumni” list in perpetuity.
“I do wish that there was somebody [who] would’ve pulled me aside and said, “Hey, understand the reputation that this organization has nationally,” Kennedy said, “and that you can’t wholly hope to divorce your endorsement of your affiliation with the national organization…Because they’ve used your success as part of the affirmation of their organization. I wish that I had known that. I wish that somebody had told that to me.” But even within the storied history of anti-Black racism among most white American fraternities, Kappa Alpha stands out for its unwavering reliance on signifiers of white Southern terror and slavery apologia—and it’s tough to take Kennedy’s claims of youthful ignorance about Kappa Alpha’s racist legacy at face value given the tributes to the Confederacy that fill the frat’s literature, and the explicit nostalgia for Old Dixie in its long-standing rituals and traditions. What’s more, the Kappa Alpha membership handbook states “there is no such thing as an ‘inactive’ member. Once you have decided to become a Kappa Alpha, and have pledged to uphold the ideals of the Order, there is no release from your obligations except by expulsion.”
Since 1923, the Kappa Alpha Order has located its “Spiritual Founder” in General Lee, the leader of the Confederate Army that spent four bloody years trying to fight back Black emancipation. (Fun fact: The frat’s actual co-founder, James Ward Wood, managed to accidentally shoot himself in the foot while on leave during the Civil War, thus ending his tenure as a Confederate soldier.) As historian Taulby Edmondson notes, the Kappa Alpha Order blends two mythical paragons of white masculinity: the Southern gentleman and the medieval European chivalric knight. The Kappa Alpha member handbook describes the society’s motto as “Dieu and les Dames,” or God and the Ladies, and states its mission “centers on reverence to God, duty, honor, character and gentlemanly conduct as inspired” by Lee himself. The Lost Cause mythology, a counterfeit version of antebellum Southern history filled with unblemished white belles and benevolent anti-Black racism, pretty much leaps straight off the page.
Among Kappa Alpha’s earliest members following its 1865 founding was Samuel Zenas Ammen, an ardent white supremacist whom the frat continues to hail as its “Practical Founder,” citing his “seminal influence on the organization.” In a lengthy 1922 volume on Kappa Alpha’s origins, Ammen—using a refrain that appears in other early histories of Kappa Alpha’s founding written by its own members—describes the group’s membership thusly: “Southern in our loves, we take [Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall”] Jackson and Lee as models of character. Aryan in blood, we exclude the African from membership.”
In the same treatise, Ammen paints Reconstruction—the years between slavery and Jim Crow when Southern Black folks briefly attained the right to vote—as a time when “white citizens were disfranchised, to give control of the States to negroes.” He goes on to highlight a kinship, or perhaps more precisely, a brotherhood, between Kappa Alpha and the KKK. “[W]hen we were organizing, in the academic sphere, for the defense of Southern culture, another organization, the Ku Klux Klan, was forming, in the political and economic spheres, to overthrow the carpet-bag governments that were bankrupting the Southern states. The Klan soon achieved its object, which was just, patriotic and limited.”
Edmondson, the historian, notes that upon the 1915 release of The Birth of a Nation—a filmic adaptation of Kappa Alpha member Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman—the movie was enthusiastically received by members of the fraternity, who wrote about how the film illuminated the ties that bound the KKK and KA.
“[T]he Birth of a Nation, one of the greatest productions ever presented on a moving picture screen, has a vital relation to the fraternity world. That the Ku Klux Klan and Kappa Alpha Order were intimately related is the gist of the sketch… The actions and the membership of the Klan are shrouded in mystery. But its members wore upon their breast the circled cross of the Kappa Alpha Order. And the Klan served, by militant, warlike means, those same ideals which our Order was organized to cherish.”
The historian notes that until the 1950s, chapters of the Kappa Alpha fraternity literally called themselves “Klans.” In response to the arrival on campus of the first Black students to integrate the University of Georgia in January 1961, Kappa Alphas there flew the Confederate flag at half-mast. According to Craig T. Greenlee’s memoir November Ever After, “the all-white Kappa Alpha fraternity” at West Virginia’s Marshall University in 1970 “were known for parading the Confederate flag at public functions… It was as if they were bound by some irrevocable oath to gleefully wave that flag widely recognized by Black folks as a symbol of unbridled bigotry.” After an intramural football face-off between the very white Kappa Alphas and the Black United Students organization, the fraternity’s racist Confederate taunt finally led to a full-scale fight. “It was so clear that this white fraternity deliberately went out of its way to antagonize Black people,” Greenlee writes.
Stories of Kappa Alpha’s racism continue through the ensuing years. After the president of Auburn University banned the Kappa Alpha frat house from flying the Confederate flag in 1985, members “decked their houses with dozens of smaller Confederate flags, donned rented Rebel uniforms and spent much of the week dashing around campus cutting loose the Rebel yell,” per a New York Times article from the era. At the same college five years earlier, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Kappa Alpha member, was photographed dressed as a Confederate soldier during the fraternity’s annual “Old South” celebration. In 1994, when Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves was a Kappa Alpha at Millsaps College, members of the chapter reportedly held a party that involved them wearing blackface, afro wigs and “Confederate flags around their necks.” Members also spat the n-word at two Black students, including author Kiese Laymon—then a writer for the school newspaper—who had just weeks prior written in an editorial, “if the word ‘n–––––’ is ever muttered, it could only be echoed from the walls of the Kappa Alpha house.”
Kennedy’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment, but chapters of Kappa Alpha continued to act terribly, in ways that drew national attention, just before and during his years with the Stanford chapter. In 1999, Kappa Alpha members at Marshall University sang a racist song that got the chapter kicked off campus for a year. Kappa Alphas at the University of North Texas in 2001 “shouted racist remarks at visiting Black athletes and displayed a Confederate battle flag.” At the University of Texas Austin, the Kappa Alpha chapter in 2003 threw a “Gin and Juice”-themed party where at least two members dressed in racist T-shirts, “one adorned with a watermelon, the other from a Juneteenth celebration.”
Is it believable that the Stanford Kappa Alphas didn’t engage in similar racist displays, or have contact with other chapters? Sure. Is it believable that the Stanford Kappa Alphas had zero knowledge of these stories about other Kappa Alpha chapters around the country, which received national news coverage? Maybe.
The national Kappa Alpha organization finally prohibited chapter members from displaying Confederate flags in 2001. In 2010, a year after a bunch of Confederate-uniform-clad members at the University of Alabama paused their “Old South” procession in front of the Alpha Kappa Alpha house—where members and alumna of the Black sorority were celebrating its 35th anniversary—the national office banned Confederate soldier outfits. It took another six years for the national organization to decree off-limits any “functions with the name Old South.” (It’s worth noting, as one former Alpha Kappa member has written, that the fraternity’s grand “Old South/Dixie Balls” didn’t actually become a thing “until the 1950s, when college campuses across the South were facing pressure to integrate.”) That same year, 2016, Brock Turner raped a woman just outside of the Stanford University Kappa Alpha fraternity house.
But the final straw for Kennedy apparently came in 2019, when three University of Mississippi Kappa Alpha brothers made headlines for a photo that shows them holding guns while posing next to a bullet-pocked plaque honoring Emmett Till. In the picture, Ben LeClere, John Lowe, and Howell Logan are all proudly beaming at having desecrated a memorial to a Black boy lynched by the white terrorists who preceded them nearly 65 years before. LeClere posted the photo to his Instagram on Lowe’s birthday with the caption, “One of Memphis’s finest and the worst influence I’ve ever met.” A new sign for Till, bulletproof and made of steel, now stands on the site.
Kennedy announced his intention to primary progressive U.S. Senator Ed Markey last September. One month before the official launch of his campaign, Kennedy and eight of his fellow brothers from the Stanford Kappa Alpha chapter signed a letter calling for “an immediate, formal severance” from the fraternity—one that was sent privately and only made public this year, when Kennedy’s Senate campaign shared it with Boston.com.
“During our time at Stanford, our chapter was non-affiliated with your organization in every practical sense, but still: Our house bore the KA letters above the entryway we walked through every day,” the outlet quotes the letter as stating. “Though we treasure our college memories, in hindsight it is clear that even this level of affiliation was a mistake, and perhaps we have stayed silent for too long.”
The missive also noted that signees “hold [the national Kappa Alpha office] accountable for giving its members both encouragement and protection by promoting racist ideas, rituals, and history.”
In the livestreamed video posted by Kennedy in June, the congressman admits that he “probably, not even probably, definitely waited too long” to disaffiliate from Kappa Alpha. That was quite the understatement.
Earlier this month, the frat’s Southwestern University chapter posted an open letter denouncing Robert E. Lee and the treasonous Confederacy, writing that they “formally denounce Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy (and call) for the Kappa Alpha Order national organization to cut all ties with Robert E. Lee, and any figures or ideals which serve to absolve or romanticize the Confederacy.” They note that “KA nationally has a deeply troubling history that active chapters can no longer cry ignorance to; our chapter has a duty to step up and force changes that will produce more compassionate and well-rounded young men.”
Kappa Alpha’s executive director responded by suspending the chapter—severing its relationship with members at least until the end of this year. Perhaps now Kennedy would agree that such a move is fully in keeping with Kappa Alpha’s infamous history.