Alpha Phi Alpha’s move out of Florida could be the first of many Black organizations

Statewide policies under Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis prompted the nation’s oldest Black fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, to pull its 2025 convention out of the state as a form of protest. But now, the group’s president, Willis L. Lonzer III, said he thinks his fraternity’s decision may galvanize other Black organizations to ditch Florida for their major events, particularly after the approval of a new educational curriculum that includes points indicating that some Black people benefited from slavery.

Lonzer said officials from each of the eight other Black fraternities and sororities, and leaders of other organizations have reached out to say they stand with the Alphas and are committed to not scheduling any additional events that would bring significant revenue to Florida. Even before the Alphas made their announcement, the National Society of Black Engineers last month pulled its scheduled convention from Orlando, with plans to move it to Atlanta in March for the same reasons the fraternity cited. 

“This is a multi-pronged armamentarium that we have to provide to attack racial prejudice and policies that are white supremacist in nature,” Lonzer said. “We have here, a situation where Jim Crow has morphed from what it was 40, 50 years ago. And we’re in the process of developing new tactics to attack this.”

Initially, Alpha Phi Alpha leaders decided not to drop their plans to convene in Florida “as we are not afraid to wade into waters where there’s controversy,” Lonzer said. “We saw in many respects that Gov. DeSantis has continued to push policies harmful to Black people, to brown people and marginalized communities in Florida.”

DeSantis has said Florida is where “woke goes to die.” He doubled down on his comment in January when his administration said it would block a new Advanced Placement African American studies course from being taught in public high schools, prompting some Black parents to say they will teach the history at home to assure their children are well versed. DeSantis also has been vocal about banning the teaching of critical race theory in public schools and about other policies that some consider to be  anti-gay or anti-immigration.

The final factor, Lonzer said, came with the DeSantis administration’s new curriculum that “suggests that slavery was somehow beneficial to those enslaved. Anyone who suggests that is either incredibly ignorant or grossly divisive. And that’s why we decided to make an economic protest.”

 Lonzer estimates Orlando will miss out on at least $15 million in revenue from the convention. More than 10,000 people — about half of whom were registered Alpha Phi Alpha brothers — recently flocked to Dallas for the organization’s 97th annual national convention. The other half were people from other organizations who joined the festivities. With its policies, Florida, Lonzer said, has “blown an opportunity” for revenue in Orlando and the state more broadly. 

 “This thing with the Alphas is saying a lot,” said James Strickland, a Black Orlando resident. “I hope other groups follow them because it’s really embarrassing to say I live in Florida. I’m glad the Alphas pulled out their convention. It hurts my community, but the only way to get people to listen is to hit them in the pockets.”

The DeSantis administration did not respond to a request for comment. 

Lonzer will take over in September as chairman of the Council of Presidents, a group that represents all Black fraternities and sororities known as the Divine Nine, and he’s promising more aggressive measures.

“We have nine strong leaders, and we will work together and really cut out new opportunities for us to try and employ pressures that will be favorable for the communities that we support,” he said. “Alpha Phi Alpha is strong, all of the other organizations are strong … but united, we’re even stronger.”

In July, Kappa Alpha Psi, another Black Greek-letter fraternity, held its national conclave in Tampa because it had already been planned and paid for. Shortly before its convention, the Kappas released a statement saying they joined other organizations “in solidarity against insensitive, discriminatory, and racist policies being promoted in the State of Florida by Governor Ron DeSantis and his allies.” 

Still, Lonzer said, Alpha Phi Alpha stands “in solidarity with the men of Kappa.”

The fraternity Omega Psi Phi plans to head to Tampa for its national conclave in July 2024. Leaders have not announced plans to move it at this point, which has been a point of controversy within Omega, some of its members have told NBC News.

Meanwhile, the pushback on DeSantis’ policies is not new. In May, the NAACP issued a travel advisory to Black people who had planned to visit the state. 

The advisory read: “Florida is openly hostile toward African Americans, people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals. Before traveling to Florida, please understand that the state of Florida devalues and marginalizes the contributions of, and the challenges faced by African Americans and other communities of color.”

Leon W. Russell, the chairman of the NAACP national board of directors, said the advisory was issued for multiple and intersecting marginalized communities.

“If you are a part of any of these communities — Black, Latino, LGBTQ — or if you stand in support of these communities, you need to work with us to think about a proactive civic engagement policy because this, at the end of the day, is about politics,” Russell, who lives in Tampa, said.

In a statement to media at the time, the DeSantis administration said the NAACP travel advisory was “nothing more than a stunt.” 

Lonzer said Alpha Phi Alpha is already looking ahead to 2024.

“For the next election, we will be making sure we get people to the polls, and that they can vote,” he said. “That’s the best thing that the citizens of Florida can do. And that’s what we’re encouraging. And we’re trying to make sure that we can shift some of this narrative so that other legislative bodies and others can help with the lift to bash white supremacy and these racist policies that are taking place.”

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