Denver resident Ken Washington joined Stanford’s chapter of Sigma Chi, igniting controversy and a legal challenge at the University of Colorado
In April 1965, the Stanford University chapter of the Sigma Chi fraternity invited Ken Washington to become a member. This flouted the fraternity’s longstanding whites-only policy, and the fallout reverberated across the nation, generating a controversy and legal challenge in Boulder, Colorado.
Just after Washington pledged to join the Stanford Sigma Chi chapter, the national fraternity cut ties with the inclusive chapter. Underscoring how seriously the national chapter took the event, the national president told The New York Times that no Black man would ever become a member of Sigma Chi.
As it happened, Ken Washington grew up in Denver, and his case made headlines in Colorado. Also as it happened, the University of Colorado had—nine years earlier—required that all fraternities practicing racial and religious discrimination be placed on probation.
The incident in Stanford caught the attention of CU’s Board of Regents, which demanded proof that the local Sigma Chi chapter was truly against discrimination.
The 1956 decree, passed after a contentious series of meetings at CU, mandated that all fraternities here officially certify that they were not practicing discrimination. The regents’ policy gave fraternities until 1962 to comply.
As a group of historians later observed, the 1956 decree was “reasonable and workable,” and student organizations has more than six years to eliminate discriminatory policies.
The 1965 incident at Stanford, however, was clear evidence that at least one fraternity was intransigent. The regents swiftly summoned the Boulder chapter of Sigma Chi (called Beta Mu), to verify its commitment to equal access.
The Boulder fraternity appeared at a university hearing but remained silent, refusing to explain or elaborate on their policies. Given the national fraternity’s clear policy of racial discrimination, the regents concluded that Beta Mu was compelled to discriminate and placed Beta Mu on probation.
The fraternity sued the regents, arguing that the university had violated Beta Mu’s constitutional right to “freedom of association.” Further, the fraternity argued that Colorado advanced no significant state interest by regulating its membership policies.
A three-judge district court rejected Beta Mu’s claims, stating: “It is clear from an examination of these cases that the right of association is not, as plaintiffs have contended, an absolute right but is always subject to evaluation in relation to the interest which the state seeks to advance.”
Further, the court said, the state of Colorado had a genuine interest in regulating fraternal memberships, noting that the regents legitimately aimed to “eliminate from the charters and rituals of the organizations affected a provision which compels discrimination on the basis of race, color or creed.”
At the center of the storm was Washington, the Stanford student, whom one journalist characterized as having a “cool, relaxed manner (that) covers a tautness.” Speaking to the Stanford Magazine in 2014, Washington recalled childhood fisticuffs that followed his being called the N-word.
no sane person enjoys being rejected for reasons that have nothing to do with your achievements and capabilities in life. That's what racism does. It questions your humanity, your basic humanity.”
“If they’re going to call you that name, they need to know where it stops,” he said.
Five decades after the episode, Washington told Stanford Magazine, “no sane person enjoys being rejected for reasons that have nothing to do with your achievements and capabilities in life. That's what racism does. It questions your humanity, your basic humanity.”
Racially integrating fraternities was not a “burning issue” for him, he said then. “But it was also something I knew was important to follow through with and to be a part of, because it was just one more avenue of divesting racism in the country.”
Sources: Glory Colorado, a History of the University of Colorado, 1858-1963; Our Own Generation: The Tumultuous Years, University of Colorado 1963-1976; The University of Colorado, 1876-1976; Sigma Chi Fraternity v. Regents of University (1966); “’Freedom of Association’s’ Inapplicability to Greek-letter Fraternities,” North Carolina Law Review, 1967. “What They Stood For,” Stanford Magazine, 2014.