Rep. Joseph Kennedy III says he disaffiliated from Kappa Alpha last year due to its ‘record of racist actions’

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Rep. Joseph Kennedy III ’03 (D-Mass.) announced in a Facebook live held last Thursday that he had disaffiliated from his Stanford fraternity, Kappa Alpha (KA), last year. 

The Massachusetts congressman, who was joined in the live event by five other fellow former fraternity members, told the audience that he “should have done the homework” and that he “definitely waited too long” to make the move. The group streamed the Facebook live and shared some of the discussions they had a year ago regarding their disaffiliation, stressing personal responsibility in light of protests against police brutality and systemic racism.

Kennedy said his separation from KA was sparked by the news that several members of the University of Mississippi chapter posed with guns in front of a memorial to Emmett Till, whose brutal murder over six decades ago served as one of the catalysts for the civil rights movement. Three students were suspended by KA in July of last year after an Instagram photo surfaced of them holding guns in front of a bullet-riddled memorial sign for Till. The sign, which has been replaced multiple times due to vandalism, marks the spot on the Tallahatchie River where Till’s body was found in 1955 after he was tortured and lynched. Till was accused of whistling at a white woman at a grocery store. 

“We are open to discuss any past incident with any member who cares to learn. These incidents are the exception, not the rule,” wrote Jesse Lyons, assistant executive director for advancement for the Kappa Alpha Order in a statement to The Daily. “Congressman Kennedy has never called to discuss any issue. Nothing of course excuses poor behavior. However, these incidents are the exception, not rule, in our membership.”

Lyons also wrote that the Kappa Alpha Order has recruited their first Director of Community Engagement, who launched the “Values in Action” program in January of this year, designed to “help chapters learn more about racial inequality and values alignment on their campus.”

Speaking directly to Stanford students, Kennedy said that while the fraternity might be a pleasant place to live, students should be wary of the implications of the affiliation. 

“Understand what that affiliation means, and if you think you’re going to wholly be able to divorce yourself from it, the lesson here tonight is you’re not,” he said. “Life is longer than those four years and this is an affiliation that will stay unless you are deliberate about addressing it.”

“Kappa Alpha Order is disappointed that Joe Kennedy, a sitting member of Congress, in a hotly contested Senate primary race, has stated he is seeking to disaffiliate,” wrote Lyons. “We are sorry that he has denigrated the reputation of 8,000 undergraduate men and more than 135,000 alumni.”

Former chapter president Nathaniel Fernhoff ’03 called on Stanford to disaffiliate from Kappa Alpha and pull the fraternity’s charter. 

“Why should KA have a presence on Stanford’s campus?” he asked. “Why does the current group need a charter if they built a solid community?”

“Get rid of the name,” he added. “Move forward without them.”

The fraternity was founded by four individuals at Washington College, now Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, in 1865. One of the four was a Confederate veteran, as was Samuel Zenas Ammen, who has been called the group’s “practical founder.” The fraternity also considers Confederate general Robert E. Lee to be a “spiritual founder,” The fraternity’s founders wrote that that the order was inspired by his “duty, honor, character and gentlemanly conduct.” Lee was president of Washington College at the time.

While KA recently lost its campus housing at Stanford for allowing students to reside in its house without paying room and board to the University in violation of Stanford policy, it remains a recognized fraternity. 

“Stanford actively combats racism and forbids discrimination in any student organization,” wrote Student Affairs spokesperson Pat Harris in a statement to The Daily. “Violations are subject to organizational disciplinary proceedings.”

“Recommendations for a housing allocation process and an accreditation program were implemented this spring,” she wrote. “This summer and fall, Greek student leaders will continue these efforts by joining several work groups focusing on collective values and relationships with outside stakeholders, and equity and inclusion.”

“I’m angry at myself for being stupid enough to live in the Stanford bubble,” said former KA member Jaison Robinson ’03. “There’s an extra responsibility to do even more.” 

In response to the three students posing with guns at the Till memorial and Kennedy’s disaffiliation, current KA chapter president Sal Spina ’22 wrote in a statement to The Daily that “the actions of those three students are unacceptable and appalling. There is no place for acts of intolerance, such as that photo, in our world. Anyone who perpetrates an act of racism and intolerance must be held accountable.”

“In the Alpha Pi (Stanford) Chapter of KA, we are having an open conversation about the legacy of racism within the history of the national organization and we are working to create positive change both in our chapter and on the national level,” he added. “We know this change is necessary for our chapter to have a place in Stanford’s community.” 

Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) spokesperson Cricket X. Bidleman ’21 wrote in a statement to The Daily that, while Greek organizations have existed for decades, “groups which have existed for that long tend to uphold past ideals, which included heavy discrimination against various populations.”

“The ASSU condemns this history,” she added, and it “encourages all groups to remember the importance of upholding modern thoughts and practices supporting all populations, and hopes that every group has serious discussions on diversity and inclusion.” 

This article has been updated to clarify that one of KA’s four original founders, in addition to the individuals who have been called KA’s “practical founder” and “spiritual founder,” were Confederate veterans. This article has also been updated to include information from Lyons, and clarify that the fraternity still considers Robert E. Lee to be a “spiritual founder.”

Contact Emma Talley at emmat332 ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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Emma Talley is from Sacramento, California. She is a Managing Editor of News and plans to pursue a career in journalism or writing. Contact her at emmat332 'at' stanford.edu.