A month before launching his Senate campaign last year, Joe Kennedy III revisited one element of his mostly unimpeachable college career. At Stanford University in the early 2000s, he had lived in the Kappa Alpha fraternity house, and he wanted to formally disaffiliate because of the national organization’s “racist record,” he and a group of former members wrote in a joint letter to the fraternity.
In a dead-heat Senate race where the candidates are virtually indistinguishable on policy, Senator Edward Markey has seized on Kennedy’s connection to that troubled fraternity, citing his involvement as an example of poor judgment and his disassociation mere political expediency. The jab has become more potent against the backdrop of a national reckoning over racism and white supremacy.
“He’s changed his position on the ‘racist fraternity’ — that’s his own words — that he was in for 20 years, and he only left that fraternity one month before this campaign,” Markey said in the first few moments of last Tuesday’s debate.
Kappa Alpha was founded in 1865 and still views Robert E. Lee as its “spiritual founder”; well into the 2000s, some chapters dressed up as Confederate soldiers for annual “Old South” parades. The organization long promoted “lost cause” ideology, glorifying the Old South as a model of graciousness and hospitality while minimizing the role of slavery, said Taulby Edmondson, a professor at Virginia Tech who has studied Kappa Alpha’s archives dating back to the 1870s. (The national group voted to ban the Confederate flag in 2001.)
“It’s not just a fraternity that has this quirky affiliation with a Confederate general,” said Edmondson. “You’re kind of in the belly of the beast.”
Kennedy and others who attended Stanford at the same time said the KA chapter there was effectively independent from the national organization and its members did not participate in the national organization’s traditions. Still, Kennedy said, he regrets the affiliation.
“As I look back on it now, it’s a pretty good example of saying, hey, even if you didn’t participate in the system intentionally, you still participated. And you have to own responsibility for that,” Kennedy said in an interview with the Globe last week.
In college, Kennedy said, he never intended to join a fraternity, but a close group of friends were moving into the KA house his sophomore year and he wanted to live with them. KA, whose local chapter was founded at Stanford in 1895, was known in the early 2000s for its laid-back atmosphere, alums told the Globe.
“KA was not one of these formal fraternities,” said Amit Kapur, a member of KA who graduated in 2003, the same year as Kennedy. “It was just a great group of guys that wanted to have a nice place to live together.”
The Stanford house shared meals together and sometimes hosted parties; many were surfers, basketball players, or water polo players, alums said. The house was on the shores of Lake Lagunita.
“The word fraternity has to be used in quotes,” said Noah Lichtenstein, who played club lacrosse with Kennedy and belonged to a different fraternity. “It was more like a house that was up on the lake that people lived in. It was known for pretty mellow, nice folks.”
Around the same time, however, Kappa Alpha was making headlines for a string of racist incidents around the country. In 2001, members at the University of North Texas were accused of shouting racist remarks and waving a Confederate flag at black visitors to the school. In 2002, the University of Virginia chapter co-hosted a Halloween party where guests wore blackface, an episode that made national news.
“Do I think that he was completely unaware of [KA’s ideology]? I find it hard to believe,” said Kali Holloway, director of the Make it Right project, a social justice media campaign working on removing Confederate monuments. Holloway has written about Kappa Alpha’s white supremacist history. “It’s so encoded into everything they’re about. Lee is literally their spiritual founder.”
Kennedy said that he couldn’t recall specific headlines from the time and that he didn’t recognize a problem back then because the house where he lived was diverse, full of his friends (his roommate, Jason Collins, was a Black basketball star who would become the NBA’s first openly gay player), and condoned by the university.
“At some point along the lines there I obviously was made aware that there was a difference: KA meant something at Stanford, at least amongst the people at that time at Stanford, versus other chapters in the country,” Kennedy said.
Kapur said he had heard rumors about some connection with Robert E. Lee but had never looked into it.
“When I heard about it, it was definitely a turnoff,” Kapur said. “But at the same time, we felt no association or attachment to [the national group].”
The national Kappa Alpha Order disputed in a statement the contention that the Stanford chapter was basically independent. Larry Stanton Wiese, the executive director, said that representatives from the Stanford KA chapter attended national KA conventions in 1999, 2001, and 2003, with one Stanford KA member participating in an oratory contest and receiving an award in 2001. Wiese said he and the national president visited the Stanford chapter annually from 2000 to 2003, as well as almost annually since then, and helped fund the chapter’s operations.
Wiese also said while local chapters develop their own “member education program,” each undergraduate receives a handbook containing KA history and takes a new member exam. Alums from the Stanford chapter, including Kennedy, said they did not recall getting a handbook or taking any kind of test.
Former members said the house was racially and economically diverse, with no formal initiation — a number referred to it as “the un-frat frat.” The house’s lack of interest in the national organization even seemed to rub some national administrators the wrong way, said T. Clark Durant, who was a KA pledge educator — nominally responsible for teaching new members about the frat — at Stanford in 2002.
“In 2002, the national KA org began to make noises about wanting us to learn more about the national org, and threatened to take away the house if we did not show some degree of interest,” Durant wrote in an e-mail to the Globe. “There was nobody in the house who was excited to be any closer to the national org.”
But the national organization continued to show interest in the Stanford chapter, he said.
Kennedy said his disaffiliation was not spurred by his Senate campaign, as Markey claimed, but instead by an incident that made national headlines in July 2019: Three KA members from the University of Mississippi chapter posed with guns in front of a bullet-riddled memorial to Emmett Till, the Black 14-year-old whose murder ignited the civil rights movement. (KA suspended the three members).
“I went, ‘Oh my God,‘” Kennedy said.
In the 2019 letter to KA, Kennedy and others wrote that although they saw their chapter as separate from the national organization, it wasn’t possible to separate their “unique experience from the larger Kappa Alpha experience in this country.”
“We hold your organization accountable for giving its members both encouragement and protection by promoting racist ideas, rituals, and history,” they wrote.
In early June of this year, amid the Black Lives Matter protests following George Floyd’s death, Kennedy and others discussed their decision to disaffiliate in a Facebook Live conversation and afterwards wrote a letter to Stanford, asking the campus to “formally and fully sever all ties with the Kappa Alpha (KA) fraternity.”
Kennedy said he realized now that his involvement helped to sanction KA’s problematic positions.
“That, ultimately, is on me,” he said. “Can I explain it away? Sure. Does it absolve me from the responsibility? No.”