The Evolution of a Society and Fraternity:
The Response of Phis regarding Equality

By Jay-Raymond N. Abad, UC Irvine, 2002
June, 2006

Today it is difficult to imagine Greek lettered societies without the diversity that is now common place. However, there was a time when membership was denied solely because of race and religion. In retrospect, it is a difficult area to explore for any fraternity but to deny that part of our history would be an attempt to revise the growth of an organization. How exactly did prominent members of Phi Delta Theta view society in terms of a racial and ethnic context? It is a sensitive issue but one worth exploring. Here we examine how the views of certain Phis as well as the fraternity itself impacted the society we live in.

The concept of membership clauses was present in many Greek lettered societies. Phi Delta Theta was no different. The fraternity had a long standing policy of admitting only “white males of pure Aryan blood” in response to western chapters granting membership to Asians. This exclusionist sentiment is evident in the early membership catalogues of the fraternity which indicated that many Phis openly proclaimed their affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan in their biographies. Interestingly many of them were from Northern States such as Illinois and Michigan.

In government positions, many other Phis carried a deep prejudice. Among the most notable was James McReynolds (Vanderbilt University 1883). He was the first Phi to ever sit on the United States Supreme Court but he was a well known Anti-Semite and held such a disdain for Jews that no picture of the Justices of the Supreme Court in 1916 exist because he refused to sit next to Justice Louis Brandeis, a Jew.

Perhaps one of the most tragic consequences of not understanding occurred during World War II. In the aftermath of the chaos and confusion surrounding Pearl Harbor many Americans grew a profound distrust of Japanese-Americans. Though many if not all were loyal to the United States, the government ordered them to be shipped to internment camps where they were to remain for the duration of the war. One of the principal architects of this episode was Major General Alan Gullion (Centre College 1901) the United States Provost Marshall. It was in part his idea to remove Japanese-Americans from their home. Although some historians argue that the internment was necessary, most regard it as a dark chapter which was characterized by unwarranted fear.

The Civil Rights movement was a critical period in American History and caught in the middle of one of the most important and turbulent events was Governor Ernest Vandiver (Univ. of Georgia 1940). He won the Governorship of Georgia on a platform of pro-segregation in 1958. He was known to have had a strong dislike toward Martin Luther King Jr. so much so that when King was jailed for a protest it took the power of President Kennedy to make Vandiver give a promise ensuring King’s security. Vandiver was embroiled in the famous desegregation of the University of Georgia. He had vowed to defend segregation pledging that not “one black child would sit in a Georgia classroom with whites”. It took a court ruling from a federal judge to allow the admission of two African-Americans to the University of Georgia and ordering Vandiver to ensure their safety.

However not all Phis held such an exclusionist mentality regarding race and religion. There were a great many more who stood up for their beliefs of equality. From sports to the military, the legacy of the decisions of those Phis in high ranking positions are still felt to this day.

Perhaps the earliest known Phi whose actions demonstrated equality was that of alumnus initiate Nathan Lewis Rice (Miami (Ohio), 1827), a prominent Presbyterian leader, who was chosen by abolitionists to engage in a highly publicized debate against Jonathan Blanchard, another religious leader about slavery in 1846 in Cincinnati. Rice argued for a gradual emancipation of slavery and that total freedom, not just nominal freedom, should be had by all.

In the army, a prominent Phi was Brigadier General Thomas Morgan (Franklin College 1861) who later became Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Though over 180,000 African-American troops fought in the Civil War their initial inclusion in the Union Army was controversial. However Morgan, a staunch abolitionist, raised four regiments of African Americans and commanded a brigade.

Arthur Schlesinger *, one of the United States' most prominent writers and historians and who is also the namesake of the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, was unaware of the restrictive clause when he had joined the Ohio State University chapter. When he found out about the clause decades later, he was so appalled that he resigned his membership.

William Allen White (University of Kansas 1890) the great editor and writer specifically entered the 1924 Kansas Gubernatorial Campaign on an anti-Ku Klux Klan platform. White wrote many anti-KKK essays in his papers which were published throughout the country. White eventually lost to Ben S. Paulen who had the support of the Klan. It is important to note that White's opposition to the KKK and strong support of equal rights led to his writing of his editorial "To An Anxious Friend". For this editorial White received the Pulitzer Prize.

When Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color barrier in 1947 it was regarded a milestone in social equality. However years before, there were many players who advocated for desegregation. One of these players was the great Lou Gehrig (Columbia University 1925) who when asked about his thoughts regarding baseball integration remarked, “There is no room in baseball for discrimination. It is our national pastime and a game for all”

In contrast to General Gullion’s actions during World War II, the time was also notable for another Phi who had a strong voice against discrimination. Elmer Davis (Franklin College 1910) the prominent radio reporter and head of the Office of War Information spoke out against the Japanese internment. In fact, he along with several others urged President Roosevelt to allow an all Japanese army unit to fight in the war. The result was the formation of the all Japanese-American unit 442nd Regimental Combat Team. It would become the most decorated unit in US military history. Davis is considered to be among the “unsung forefathers” of the famed unit.

One of the most lasting legacies of a Phi in regards to civil rights in the military was that of Robert Patterson (Union College 1912). During his tenure as Undersecretary of War and later Secretary of War for Presidents Roosevelt and Truman respectively, he advocated the desegregation of the army which was eventually accomplished. Of all his undertakings, he regarded this as one of his most important because of his belief that those who fight for freedom should be placed on equal footing.

Courage is not as the absence of fear but the ability to challenge and overcome it. Thomas Hardwick (Mercer University 1892) is perhaps Phi Delta Theta's most courageous politician in terms of equality. Hardwick was the Governor of Georgia in the 1920s at a time when the Ku Klux Klan was a powerful and influential organization. Hardwick strongly opposed the Klan throughout his tenure as governor knowing full well that doing so would cost him re-election. Hardwick was eventually defeated by Cliff Walker, who had the support of the Klan.

Two other Phis played a critical role during the civil rights movement. While Justice Reynolds was an avowed racist, another Phi, Justice Sherman Minton (Indiana University 1915) played a critical role in an important ruling. Minton abhorred racial segregation and provided a solid vote to strike down the school segregation practices at issue in 1954's Brown v. Board of Education landmark ruling.

Also, recall that Governor Vandiver was ordered to ensure the safety of blacks at the University of Georgia by a federal judge. That judge happened to be another Phi, William Augustus Bootle (Mercer University 1924). In the end, people can and do change, Governor Vandiver who had once promised racial segregation, today has been credited for helping integration within schools. Vandiver successfully urged the legislature to repeal the state's antidesegregation legislation. He concluded that the closing of the state's schools would be detrimental to the young people of Georgia and to the state's economic development.

As for the fraternity's membership clause, it was Phi Delta Theta’s World War II generation that finally challenged this long held restriction. Having fought against the tyrannical oppression of Hitler’s regime and acknowledging the changing demographic landscape of the United States, many veterans grew weary of the membership clause in particular the term “Aryan”

George Banta Jr. was the first to formally bring up the question when he wrote a schlolarly article in the Palladium May 1949. “that Phi Delta Theta be honest in its handling of the entire question and not change its laws unless it is willing to carry out the spirit of its act”. Though it took nearly two decades, Phi Delta Theta was among the first large fraternities to remove the restrictive membership clause within its constitution.

Racial and ethnic tolerance is still a sensitive topic today. The response of Phis throughout history in regards to this issue have been uneven at best. It is difficult to accept the controversial parts of our history but they do exist. Nevertheless Phis can take solace that in time ignorance and discrimination gave way to tolerance and understanding.

* Arthur Schlesinger resigned his membership in Phi Delta Theta and is not officially counted on this site's alumni list.