Removal of Membership Exclusion Clause


Excerpts from In The Bond

Phi Delta Theta was founded at a time slavery was still in force in much of the United States. The existing social order included many habits, customs, and ideas that would become more democratic with the passage of time.

The six founders were men of high moral character with strong ties to three separate Protestant denominations. Three of them became active ministers.

Through the nineteenth century, there were no written regulations to be followed in extending bids to join the Fraternity. It was assumed that invitees would be professed Christians who would live by and uphold the ideals of the Fraternity as they promised in signing The Bond.

Time and social customs go through an inevitable process of change. As we have seen, much of the anti-fraternity sentiment among educators, legislators, and the general public was based on the premise that fraternal life was elitist, snobbish, and undemocratic.

There was enough justification in those views of fraternity life to force the leaders to fight hard to show that chapters did emphasize educational values and build character. It was inevitable that by the twentieth century, fraternities would formally define their requirements for membership.

In Phi Delta Theta’s case, that came in an apparently routine session at the 1910 Convention when this qualification for membership was voted into The Code: “Only male white persons of pure Ayran blood shall be eligible for membership.” That Code wording was passed almost unanimously at the time and reaffirmed in 1912.

But by World War II, dissenting voices were beginning to be heard urging liberalization of that Code legislation which barred membership to blacks, Jews, Asians, and Muslims.

The matter was discussed at the 1946 and 1948 Conventions, although supporters for change did not want to push hard during the Centennial Convention. But George Banta Jr. cleared the way for stronger debate with an interesting and scholarly article in the May 1949 issue of The Palladium. Banta raised three questions but offered no answers in a way to stimulate discussion.

Banta described the rising civil rights movement and the renewal of increasing criticism of fraternities over the same issues that had been heard for the last fifty years. He insisted the Fraternity must come to grips with the issue.

The second difficult question had to do with how big the Fraternity could become, in chapters as well as members within a chapter. In the beginning, the average chapter was rarely more than ten or twelve men. When he raised the question, many chapters were in the one-hundred-plus-member category.

Banta’s third question was more easily resolved, having to do with the need for an expanded salaried administrative staff and giving the executive secretary the power to make some decisions that heretofore had to await General Council or Convention approval.

The eligibility for membership question was one that would be fought over for the next two decades at every Convention before adjustments to The Code finally brought the Fraternity more in tune with the times. During that same period, American society itself was almost torn apart on the issue of race relations.

In its first one hundred years, our Fraternity selected its new members from a collegiate society that was mostly white, male, and of Christian religious beliefs. After the end of World War II, the campus population began changing.

It was inevitable that there would be attempts to throw out the Ayran blood requirement at the undergraduate level with the older alumni determined to preserve the membership requirements in effect when they were initiated.

The 1952 Convention at the resort site of French Lick Springs, Indiana, turned into a combative arena on the issue. The speaker at the banquet was Roger D. Branigin, Franklin 1923, soon to be governor of Indiana. His witty approach was welcome in the tense atmosphere, as was a scholarly talk by Dr. Alton Ochsner, South Dakota 1918, president of the American College of Surgeons.

The banquet ended around 10:00 p.m., but President George Housser, McGill 1906, instructed the delegates to return to the meeting hall for unfinished business. That turned out to be two reports filed by the Committee on General Statutes. The majority recommended a modification of the existing rule. The minority report favored no action.

A long session lasted into the wee hours; the final vote upheld the existing rules. Two years later the same issue was fought over again at the Mackinac Convention and resulted in a marathon business session beginning at 9:30 a.m. and finally adjourned at 10:20 p.m. with interruptions for lunch and dinner. Present were 114 underclassmen with the right to vote, while officers and alumni numbered 75. Everyone who wanted to speak was given the floor. The undergraduates generally were on the side of change, many under pressure from the knowledge that university administrations were poised to outlaw fraternities that held to restrictive membership.

The roll call found the motion to change the regulations defeated. But there had been a compromise proposal that came to the floor. This would remove the restrictive wording but made it clear that all members of Phi Delta Theta must be acceptable to all chapters. The key word was ‘all.’

The ‘black ball’ vote on membership that had been decided by individual chapters wasn’t new. But now one negative vote, from which there was no appeal, would disqualify a candidate.

After much discussion about how the proposed change would be controlled, the proposal passed 168–21. That was the first breakthrough, and the poisonous word Ayran, so offensive to most Americans because of its association with Adolf Hitler, was gone forever from our Code and Bylaws.

At the 51st Convention in Boulder, Colorado, two years later, the 1954 action was ratified by an overwhelming majority, 187–6.

The Scroll reported, “the new section eliminates any reference to race, color, or creed but stipulates that those chosen must be possessed of social attributes that will make them acceptable to all members of the Fraternity.”

It was not anywhere near a perfect solution to the membership wording, but it was a major breakthrough. The membership issue was a long way from being resolved, as it remained an overriding concern at Conventions through the 1960s