On March 3, 1913, the day before the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson, 5,000 women marched along the streets of Washington, D.C. “in a spirit of protest against the [then] present political organization of society, from which women [were] excluded,” particularly at the ballot box.
At the very back of the procession was a conspicuous group: the 22 founders of the newly-minted Delta Sigma Theta sorority and their supporters. It was the first public act of the sorority, the only African-American women’s organization involved in the Women’s Suffrage Parade.
Taking a stand against the status quo demanded bravery—the parade was often impeded by gangs of drunken men who shoved, kicked, tripped, jeered, manhandled and spat upon the marchers with impunity from attendant police, who did nothing to protect the parade and often joined in the abuse. But those Black women bore even greater burdens along that route from the Capitol to the Treasury—the weight of the rampant racism that permeated American society and even disapproval from White suffragists, who didn’t believe the right to vote should extend to Black women.
And, yet, the Deltas marched.
“Our founders made the determination in that very moment that Delta Sigma Theta would not sit idly by while any group of individuals were denied their basic human freedoms,” said National President Cynthia Butler-McIntyre. “And since then, we have not strayed from that fighting stalwart spirit that has been engrained in every Delta woman.”
Even after 100 years of existence, social and political activism has been, and continues to be, a hallmark of the organization, leaders and other observers say.
“We are social activists; that is our mission and our calling,” said the Rev. Dr. Gwendolyn Boyd, co-chair of its Social Action Commission. “We try to be change agents in every generation, just like our founders were.”
The Deltas’ activism began, and continues to be, in the political sphere.
“We have a voice in everything. We have thousands of members and we let our voices be heard loudly and clearly,” Rev. Boyd said. “We have documented responses to almost every issue that impacts our communities.”
The sorority encourages participation in the political process through nonpartisan voter registration and mobilization drives.
And every year, the sorority engages in a Delta Days in the Nation’s Capital, a legislative conference during which delegates attend legislative briefings and issue forums, and receive training on developing advocacy skills, navigating the legislative process, legislative letter writing, congressional testimony, resolution writing, and coalition building. Sorors also swarm Capitol Hill, and meet with legislators to advocate on behalf of particularly issues.
“You stand on the shoulders of giants! Sorors like Shirley Chisholm, Carrie Meek and Carol Mosely-Braun have fought the battles, but it is our time to win the war on poverty, racism, sexism classism, violence against women, violence against our young men, and the abuse of our children,” Butler-McIntyre admonished sorority members during this year’s Delta Days in March.
The sorority’s activism does not only manifest in places of power, however, but also in direct outreach and service to the community.
“Outreach is why we exist; we exist to serve,” said Boyd, the organization’s 22nd president. “And we not only talk about it but we do it.”
The sorority runs several programs as part of its community outreach.
“Our programs are the life-blood of our organization,” Butler-McIntyre told the AFRO. “We strive to educate and mentor our youth, stimulate our communities and make them economically viable, provide much needed resources to underdeveloped countries, promote health and healthy living; and ensure our members and communities are aware of legislative decisions that dictate the well-being of their day-to-day lives.”
The programs fall within the group’s Five-Point Programmatic Thrusts: Economic development, educational development, international awareness and involvement, physical and mental health and political awareness and involvement.
A major focus has been on education. Youth initiatives include: The Dr. Betty Shabazz Delta Academy, which was created with an eye toward boosting the self-esteem and academic and overall success of 11- to 14-year-old girls. Chapters engage in a range of activities to attain those goals, such as computer training, self-esteem and etiquette workshops, field trips for science experiences and for college exposure, and special outings to cultural events, fancy dinners, museums, plays, and concerts. Delta GEMS targets African-American at-risk, 14- to 18-year-old adolescent girls and help them develop a roadmap for college and career success and for individual growth and leadership. And the EMBODI ((Empowering Males to Build Opportunities for Developing Independence) program attempts to achieve the same goals with young men.
The Financial Fortitude Initiative is another program in which the group provides information from a variety of financial institutions to help members of the sorority spread financial education throughout communities in order to build wealth and financial security.
The Haiti Earthquake Relief Fund was the answer to the global call to aid those affected by the 2010 earthquake. Delta Sigma Theta joined with Water Education International and provided funds to re-build an elementary school that was destroyed in the earthquake. It is named the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. Elementary School – The Cynthia M. A. Butler-McIntyre Campus.
The Journey to Wellness initiative promotes healthy habits and lifestyles and encourages the spiritual well-being of African-American families.
The sorority also promotes clean water though its water tanks and wells initiative, raising the awareness of thousands of people who die each year due to “water-borne illnesses.” Water wells are scheduled to be installed in the Delta sponsored schools in Ghana and Kenya.
The organization has also sponsored a hospital maternity wing in Kenya, a group home for orphans and another for the disabled in South Africa.
The group has received international recognition for its efforts. In 2003, the Deltas became a non-governmental organization (NGO) with special consultative status at the United Nations, one of only two African-American organizations to hold that status.
Rev. Boyd, under whose leadership that status was attained, said the honor reflected the breadth of the sorority’s outreach.
“Our impact has been strong and wide and broad and deep in all these areas and we intend to continue,” she said.
The group has also been hailed by President Obama for their century-long dedication to service.
“Delta Sigma Theta has always stood for opportunity, knowledge and power. In the early days, the founding Deltas marched for women’s suffrage on the streets of this city, and today, you are still living up to that legacy,” said President Obama in a message to the sorority during their Founders Day Weekend in January.
“Thank you for everything you’ve done in the last century and all you will do in the new one.”