In March of 2019, a photo surfaced of three Ole Miss fraternity brothers posing with guns beside a bullet-riddled memorial to Emmett Till, the black teenager whose grisly 1955 murder was a flashpoint for the Civil Rights Movement. My stomach turned when I saw the picture, but I wasn’t surprised. Twenty-odd years ago, I was in the same fraternity.
Kappa Alpha Order was founded in Lexington, Virginia, just after the Civil War. Its early members declared themselves “Southern in our loves” and “Aryan by blood.” In 1923, the fraternity officially adopted Robert E. Lee as its “spiritual founder.” Until recently, many chapters held Old South celebrations that included marches through campus in Confederate uniforms and “plantation-style balls” to which guests came dressed in antebellum attire, the men sporting Rhett Butler-style cravats and the women in frilly dresses with hoop skirts.
The chapter I joined at James Madison University never celebrated Old South, and I never saw any Confederate flags. Most of my fraternity brothers were from the D.C. suburbs or points farther north. But we had the requisite oil painting of Lee in our house, and I couldn’t pretend to be wholly ignorant of KA’s national reputation. In Charleston, South Carolina, where I spent much of my childhood, I knew a few adults who still talked fondly of their time in “the Order,” and I grew up with a few guys who went on to pledge KA at Clemson and Wofford and Wake Forest. They owned brightly colored pants and perfectly weathered boat shoes. They had names like Trey and Tripp and Tradd.
Over winter break, my freshman year, I ran into one of those guys at a party, and he seemed surprised to learn we’d joined the same fraternity. “No offense,” he said, “but you don’t really strike me as the type.”
I hated all the snobby posturing. But I also spent enough time on the peripheries of old-money Charleston society to be fascinated by it.