Loretta Lynch hearing: Why all those red suits in the crowd?

Loretta Lynch, President Obama's nominee for US attorney general, put on a master class in poise at Wednesday's confirmation hearing. It's a political style that her Delta Sigma Theta sorority sisters, there to support her, recognize and applaud.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Women of the African-American sorority Delta Sigma Theta show support by filling rows in a Senate hearing room for their sorority sister, attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch, as she testifies at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday. If confirmed, Ms. Lynch would replace US Attorney General Eric Holder, who announced his resignation in September.

Loretta Lynch was peppered with questions from skeptical Republicans at her Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday, but the scores of sisters in red at her back – fellow members of the historically black Delta Sigma Theta sorority – were demonstrably in her camp.

It’s not a Code Pink-style demonstration, mind you. Deltas don’t shout, wave signs, or get dragged, screaming, from hearings by the US Capitol Police when they don't like what they're hearing. Deltas sit, listening carefully.

They turned out Wednesday at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing for Ms. Lynch, a Delta herself and the first black woman to be nominated as US attorney general. In 1997, they did the same for embattled nominee Alexis Herman, the first black woman to be nominated as US Labor secretary, also a Delta.

Rep. Marcia Fudge (D) of Ohio, who attended Wednesday's hearing for Lynch, was president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. in 1997. She helped organize a national effort to break Republican resistance to President Clinton's nomination of Ms. Herman, and Deltas say they’re prepared to do the same for Lynch.

“We believe in supporting women,” says Thelma Daley, a former Delta president, who sat in the first row behind family members at Wednesday’s hearing. Lynch may be the first black female US attorney general, “but there’s going to be a second and a third later,” she says.

“We’re going to flood the people in Congress and speak out in newspapers,” she adds. “We need to keep the pressure on.”

When the questions got tough on Wednesday – that is, any time Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas asked about immigration – the ladies in red (actually, official Delta colors are crimson and cream) exchanged glances or, sometimes, a deep sigh.

Their ties to one another often go back decades, linked not just by college experiences but by an ongoing involvement in service activity, civil rights activism, and professional development. Their eager presence at Lynch's confirmation hearing signals the depth of that commitment.

If the rest of the world is related by no more than six degrees of separation, the women in this room appear to be linked by no more than two. Lynch organized a Delta chapter at Harvard University in 1980, along with fellow student Sharon Malone – now the wife of Eric Holder, the US attorney general that Lynch hopes to replace.

While they don’t get the press of secret societies like Yale’s Skull and Bones, historically black sororities and fraternities have helped build a black middle class through networking. Delta Sigma Theta defines its mission as service. Ninety-seven percent of Deltas are registered to vote, and 72 percent own their own homes, according to the Delta website.

With some 250,000 members, Delta Sigma Theta is the largest African-American Greek-lettered sorority in the world. It has produced glittering lists of educators, businesswomen, doctors, entertainers, beauty queens, and civic leaders.

The sorority has counted among its members a number of women in the US Congress, including storied Reps. Barbara Jordan (D) of Texas, Shirley Chisholm (D) of New York, Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D) of Ohio, and Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D) of Illinois. Current Delta lawmakers include Reps. Fudge, who recently stepped down as head of the Congressional Black Caucus; Joyce Beatty (D) of Ohio; and Yvette Clarke (D) of New York.

Lynch's father, Lorenzo Lynch, is a fourth-generation Baptist minister. He says he and his wife, Lorine, "weren’t impressed” with Deltas when they were in college “because they had an air of arrogance.” But by the time their daughter got to Harvard, "Deltas had more of an air of service,” he adds.

The poise so conspicuous in the Lynch hearing is one of those enduring templates for black women activists. It's encouraged by black sororities preparing women to open doors that have been closed. 

"Thurgood Marshall used to say, 'Lose your temper, lose your case,' " says Elaine Jones, a Delta member and former president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), referring to the LDF founder and first African-American justice on the US Supreme Court.

"When you are not in agreement with [Lynch], you'll notice that the louder you get, the quieter she becomes," she added Wednesday during a break in the hearing.  

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