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Kamala Harris' Rise Follows Generations Of Organizing By Black Women

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When Senator Kamala Harris addressed the Democratic National Convention last night, she referenced the old saying that you have family you're born with and family you choose. Part of the family she chose was her, quote, "beloved Alpha Kappa Alpha." Emma Hurt of WABE reports on that sorority.

SOJOURNER MARABLE GRIMMETT: OK. So the skee-wee (ph) is a sound that AKAs do. I haven't done it in a while now, but it's skee-wee-wee-wee-wee-wee, skee-wee, skee-wee.

EMMA HURT, BYLINE: Sojourner Marable Grimmett lives in Atlanta. And she's a member of AKA - or Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., the oldest African American sorority in the U.S.

GRIMMETT: If, you know, you see someone out and about, then you'll hit up the soror with a quick skee-wee. And then she usually skee-wees back to you. And we're recognizing that love that we have in that sisterhood.

HURT: Senator Kamala Harris is also an AKA. She was initiated at Howard University, where the sorority was founded. Its motto is service to all mankind.

GRIMMETT: And I believe that's what Kamala Harris will do and has been doing her entire life is service to everyone.

HURT: Historically Black sororities are just one example of how Black women have organized and built themselves into a powerful political force, says Wendy Smooth, professor of political science at the Ohio State University. She's also an AKA.

WENDY SMOOTH: In the absence of government supports for the Black community, the Black community has had to fill in the gaps.

HURT: And she says Black women have often been the leaders fighting for their communities.

SMOOTH: Kamala Harris rises out of a strategic campaign led by Black women to call upon the Democratic Party to recognize their long-standing activism and support.

HURT: For example, in the 2008 and 2012 elections, Black women voted at higher rates than all other gender and race subgroups. Michelle Arrington (ph) is a lawyer in Atlanta and was also initiated into AKA at Howard.

MICHELLE ARRINGTON: We are at the polls for every local race, every national race, in our communities making sure that we get the job done.

HURT: Even though Black women haven't gotten all the credit they deserve, she says, like in the suffrage movement 100 years ago when Black women were fighting, too, though, that fight didn't actually win them the right to vote.

ARRINGTON: When you look at what we've done for this country and how we mobilize and how we use our voice and our vote, it's important to not overlook us.

HURT: Pearl Dowe teaches political science at Oxford College at Emory. She says Biden's choice is not surprising because there is a recognition of the importance of Black women in November and because Harris is very qualified. But with the excitement comes worry, she says, about the prejudice and negativity Harris will face.

PEARL DOWE: It's not going to be something that we're going to feel is directed just to her. We're also likely to feel - and I know I will - feel as if this is something that's directed at me as well because these are ideas and tropes about not Kamala Harris, but about Black women.

HURT: That worry resonates with Grimmett. But she thinks Harris can handle it. And she's excited about the ticket, just like many of her sorority sisters are.

GRIMMETT: She has our backing. And we will do whatever we can as a collective group, along with other historical Black fraternities and sororities, to support her.

HURT: At an AKA Facebook town hall last month, Harris alluded to this support system. She was talking about taking a seat at a table when you might be the only one there that looks like you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAMALA HARRIS: Even if you are the only one like you in that room, you carry all of us with you. We are with you in that room when you take that seat at the table.

HURT: Because of that, she said, when you're at the table, you're never alone.

For NPR News, I'm Emma Hurt in Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINITUS TEMPO'S "A STROLE THROUGH SAIGON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.