PAC tries to tap African-American Greek network

An advertisement for Unity9

Kai Ryssdal: Even if you've somehow managed not to pay real close attention yet to the presidential race, you know money is the story in politics this year. Just today the two presidential campaigns released their monthly fundraising totals. Suffice it to say, there's a lot of zeros involved. And political money-gathering is something a lot of people and groups want to be involved with.

For the first time this year, that list includes the Divine Nine, the collective name given to the nine oldest black fraternities and sororities. Their political action committee is called Unity9. Their alumni list has around 3 million names on it, a who's who of influential African-Americans in business, entertainment and politics.

Ann Heppermann reports.


Ann Heppermann: So why did Unity9 founder Sam Hamilton start a PAC? It’s simple, he says, because politics is a money game.

Sam Hamilton: If you’re in the fight, you’ve got to bring all that you have with you, including your pocketbook.

But just because you start a PAC, doesn’t mean the money's going to automatically roll in. Unity9 hopes to raise $1 million by the end of the year. Which is why they’re here, at a Divine Nine alumni picnic outside of Hartford, Conn. And why Kappa alumni and Hartford City Council member Kyle Anderson has interrupted the barbecue and the music to get the PAC's message out.

Kyle Anderson: Folks, I know this is a social gathering, but we just don’t party -- we party with a purpose.  So, we need to understand that it’s a political PAC that can push the agenda that we have on the national level forward.

Afterward, Anderson jokes that his little speech probably didn’t bring in millions of dollars.

Heppermann: Do you think you just raised $10,000 right there?
Anderson: If not, we raised a couple dollars.

But he did end up convincing AKA sorority sister Nyema Pinkney to donate. 

Nyema Pinkney: The Unity9 PAC has an opportunity to put our money where everybody else has been placing theirs. Because in the '60s if you had a million people stand together and say, “Hey we’d like to be heard,” you got heard. Now if you have one person with a $100 million, they get heard. It’s just that simple. 

The Divine Nine has a long tradition of social and political activities.  Members rode in the Freedom Rides in the '60s, helped desegregate schools and did get-out-the-vote campaigns.  Their alumni list is like page out of a Civil Rights history book. Jesse Jackson, Sr.? Omega Psi Phi. Maya Angelou? Alpha Kappa Alpha. And Martin Luther King? He was Alpha Phi Alpha.

But for the most part, the Divine Nine have stuck to grassroots-movements -- even in the way that they raise money.  Dr. Fredrick Harris directs the Institute for African-American Research at Columbia University. 

Frederick Harris:  When there is a candidate running, for instance, people would go to places like the black church and pass around the hat, as they did when Jesse Jackson ran in 1984 and 1988.

But Harris says the Unity9 PAC could change that.

Harris: And so here we are 20 years later and we have the founding of this PAC by very important black sororities and fraternities who are a part of the echelon of black professionals in this country. And one would hope that they would use these PACs to put on the agenda very important issues that affect black communities. 

PAC Founder Sam Hamilton agrees. Hamilton says with money comes respect and, more importantly, access. It’s the difference between getting an appointment with a junior staffer or a face-to-face meeting with a Congressman so you can say...

Hamilton: Congressman, these are our issues. As opposed to will you pass this onto the congressman.

But even though Hamilton says this PAC is a step forward, some things haven’t changed. After he filed paperwork with the FEC, a letter came to his office, he opened it and was taken back by what he read:

Hamilton: You’re a part of that group that should be annihilated like Martin Luther Coon and this and that…

Hamilton says it was a cold reminder of the hatred that still exists. But oddly enough, he was emboldened.

Hamilton: That was the first indication that this must have some power to it if within one month that you start this, something like that comes back.

Just how much power Unity9 will have in the future is still up in the air. They've donated to campaigns across the country, but the PAC is still relatively small. Its largest political contribution to date is $1,000. And of their million-dollar, end-of-the-year goal, Unity9’s only raised $150,000. But Hamilton says he's OK with that. 

Hamilton: Maybe you don’t win the fight, but you’re going to be in the fight, period. 

Because the first step is just getting into the game.

In New York, I’m Ann Heppermann for Marketplace.

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