Several Lakeland residents were at the Orange County Convention Center Thursday as Vice President Kamala Harris gave a candid 30-minute speech to more than 13,000 members of her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc.
Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. was founded in 1908 and is the nation’s first historically Black sorority. The Lakelanders present included members of one of the sorority’s graduate chapters, Omicron Kappa Omega, which is based in the Lakeland-Plant City area.
“It was a phenomenal experience. It just seemed like she was so genuine and heartfelt,” said Sheilitha Williams, parliamentarian of the local graduate chapter.
Disclosure: Reporter Stephanie Claytor is a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., Omicron Kappa Omega Chapter.
Omicron Kappa Omega Chapter President and retired Polk County Assistant County Manager Chandra Frederick called being in the room with the vice president “very exciting,” and said words couldn’t even express her feelings. She said 14 of the chapter’s 84 members were present, while many more attended the sorority’s Boule conference virtually.
“As president of the chapter, I am so proud that our members were present to witness this historic event,” Frederick said. “For me, seeing her in person at our conference reminded me why I became a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. I am reminded to continue to be a service to all mankind.”
In her speech, Harris shared her journey of becoming a member, which included being influenced to join by an aunt who was a chapter president in Oakland, Calif. Harris added that she met one of the founders of the sorority, Norma E. Boyd, and has Boyd’s autographed book on display in her office in the White House.
“Knowing that she has the same love for our illustrious sorority brought tears to my eyes,” Frederick said, adding that her speech felt personal and relatable.
Harris told the audience that accomplishments of the Biden administration include funding research to investigate solutions to the Black maternal health crisis, tax cuts for families, providing subsidies to low-income families to increase access to high-speed internet, investing $5.8 billion in Historically Black Colleges and Universities, a ban on chokeholds for federal law enforcement, and increasing diverse representation on federal courts.
“We’ve appointed the most diverse group of judges in the history of the United States, including of course the first Black woman appointed to the United States Supreme Court, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson,” Harris said. “I was so proud to be a part of that process.”
It’s an accomplishment Frederick is particularly proud of.
“For me, the selection of Ketanji Brown Jackson as the first and only Black woman on the U.S. Supreme Court is one of the most incredible moments of my lifetime,” Frederick said.
Harris ended her speech by encouraging members of the sorority to continue to fight against social injustices.
“If we want to keep our communities safe from gun violence, we must demand that Congress has the courage to repeal the liability shield that protects gun manufacturers, and we must demand they have the courage to renew the assault weapons ban. We have lost too many precious lives,” Harris said.
Harris said “so-called leaders” in Florida were making it more difficult for people to vote and “punishing women who want to make health decisions for themselves.”
“We need to continue to fight for a woman’s right to make the most intimate personal decisions for herself with her doctor, with her pastor, with her priest, with her loved ones but not her government telling her what she’s supposed to do,” Harris said. “We need to elect people who will defend these rights up and down the ballot from district attorneys to state attorney generals to local sheriffs to governors. “
Harris also encouraged members to push for the passing of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
This portion of the speech resonated with Omicron Kappa Omega Chapter member Sylvia Blackmon-Roberts. She served as the sorority’s International Connection Committee Chair and was Harris’s escort and liaison during the 2018 convention in Houston when Harris was still a U.S. Senator. She sat in the second row for this speech.
“What resonated was her call to action to go back to the community … and see [what more] I can do. She kept talking about our power as Alpha Kappa Alpha women,” Blackmon-Roberts said.
According to Harris, Alpha Kappa Alpha can be credited for registering 250,000 people to vote during the 2020 election cycle. One of the focuses and program targets of the international organization is voter education, registration, and mobilization, according to its website.
As far as Blackmon-Roberts’ and Williams’ expectations of Harris throughout the rest of her term, Blackmon-Roberts said she understands Harris has to navigate political systems.
“My expectation is when she’s at the table, that she brings the voices of marginalized people. That she does whatever she can within her power to address social injustices – the economic side of it, the healthcare side of it, the women’s right’s side of it,” Blackmon-Roberts said.
“I hope she’s able to change the hearts and the minds of individuals on how they view women in leadership positions,” Williams said.