Kamala Harris has a big advantage in her campaign to end Joe Biden’s dominance in South Carolina: Alpha Kappa Alpha alumnae, organizing outside the sorority, are pouring themselves into building support for her presidential campaign.
While the network, whose organizers call themselves the Ladies of the Pink and Green, is still in its early stages, the women have already been donating, volunteering at campaign events, hosting campaign supporters, and organizing rural black voters for Harris since the senator announced her campaign.
Harris joined AKA, which is the oldest Greek-letter sorority for black women, when she was a student at Howard University. The international sorority was founded on Howard’s campus in 1908 and has grown to over 300,000 initiates in all 50 states. Sisters of the organization often stay active within the group long after they’ve graduated from an undergraduate chapter or after they’ve been initiated by a graduate chapter. When Harris appeared at the annual Pink Ice Gala in Columbia, South Carolina, in January, she was greeted by more than 3,000 AKAs and guests.
Sorority members have shown up at Harris’s campaign rallies in full force in apple-green and salmon-pink shirts, jackets, and hats. Nearly every volunteer at the campaign’s events during Harris’s recent swing through South Carolina’s Upstate region were AKA sisters, a campaign spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.
“When she announced, I was like, ‘All right now, I’m on board,’” higher-education professional DeVetta Hughes — a former AKA South Atlantic region cluster leader from Summerville, South Carolina, who’s been leading the effort to organize AKAs around the state — told BuzzFeed News. “Not just because she’s an AKA, but it’s because she’s been putting out a platform that we can really get behind. I’m like-minded in what she’s standing for, and it was a no-brainer for me, and I’m sure it’s been a no-brainer for other women of Alpha Kappa Alpha.”
Hughes specifically cited Harris’s policies on issues affecting black women, like maternal mortality and equal pay, as well as her plans to fight gun violence. Three of the women who spoke with BuzzFeed News, who have worked as educators in the state, also pointed to Harris’s plan to raise salaries for teachers as a key policy position — in early May, 10,000 teachers and supporters from across the state went on strike to advocate for higher pay and improved working conditions. “We’re just at our wits’ end on these issues, and where she’s been standing on these issues, we’ve been behind her,” she said. “We’re just trying to wake people up.”
The women, who live across the state, have been organizing and mobilizing members through phone calls, group chats, and email chains, and they’ve hosted watch parties when Harris has appeared at town halls. They’ve already started planning to register voters in the state and encourage them to vote early ahead of South Carolina’s February primary.
Sharon Brown Harriot, a retiree and sorority sister from Columbia, and Hughes say that members of the group have been spreading the word in their communities about Harris’s campaign and that they’re recruiting sorority sisters across the state.
“Alpha Kappa Alpha has an extensive chain network of people; it’s word of mouth. We’re spreading the word from member to member, and we’re expanding our organizing from there,” Harriot told BuzzFeed News. Women associated with the Ladies of the Pink and Green have tapped into their networks to host Harris supporters and have donated to help furnish the campaign’s offices.
“We’re all over. We’re in the Upstate to the Pee Dee to the Low Country, and I don’t know what you call over in Aiken, but we’re there, too,” Harriot added. “We’re trying to reach all 46 counties.”
A spokesperson for Harris’s South Carolina campaign says they’ve held organizing calls with nearly 50 AKAs who have been organizing with the Ladies of the Pink and Green and have held sorority leadership positions across the state. South Carolina’s primary, the third contest of 2020, is the first in the South, and black people — and black women in particular — will likely cast a majority of the votes in the primary. In 2016, black voters made up 60% of the Democratic primary electorate.
Harris has visited the state more than any other presidential candidate and has forged relationships with local politicians and grassroots groups there. But former vice president Joe Biden has continued to lead the field of candidates in South Carolina polls. A late-May poll showed that 37% of South Carolina Democrats backed Biden, including 40% of black voters. Harris won the support of just 7% of poll respondents, including 8% of black voters.
Biden’s favorability among black voters in the state has some of the women organizing for Harris quietly concerned that getting voters to take a closer look at her campaign could be tough, multiple women working with the Ladies of the Pink and Green told BuzzFeed News. But they say they’re focused on educating people in their communities about Harris’s platform, and so many voters are still unsure about which candidate they’ll ultimately vote for.
“You know, a lot of people don’t know who she is yet,” Harriot told BuzzFeed News. “Her name isn’t well known as some of the other candidates here, so we’re trying to touch people in our communities to talk about her.”
“We’re talking to people on their turf and saying, ‘This is what Kamala is all about, this is her record, and this is her platform,’ and then we’re letting them make those comparisons themselves,” Gloria Boozer, an AKA from Spartanburg, South Carolina, told BuzzFeed News. “We’re talking to people about her plans to equalize wages, taking a stand on abortion, and issues that are pertinent to African Americans and women in general.”
A Harris campaign aide said the ability to tap into the AKAs’ network in the state is helping the campaign reach out to rural black voters, whom they see as a crucial voting bloc that hasn’t had the opportunity to learn about Harris since she launched.
Boozer said that in conversations around her community, she hasn’t encountered anyone who's been extremely committed to any candidate this early in the race. “It’s like they really didn’t know about her,” she said of Harris, but when Boozer talks about the senator, she added, “they perk up and listen in.”
“We get people to interface, to learn; we’re educating them and getting them involved,” Boozer said. “We’re engaging people on campuses, in churches, and anywhere we can get their attention. We’re putting her name out there and letting people see who she is and what she’s about.”