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Delta at 100: Celebration, reflection

andrews-delta-weekend-500Last weekend the weather in Washington, D.C., was unpredictable. One minute the sun would be shining and the clouds kept at bay, and then suddenly that once-optimistic sky would tip over, pouring out all the rain.

The same can be said of the shifting mood among the more than 50,000 members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. as they marked their organization's centennial in the nation's capital. It was a celebration filled with laughter, pride and happiness that midway through changed in tone, coinciding with the news that 17-year-old Trayvon Martin's killer, George Zimmerman, would walk free. The winds had changed.

On Friday, a day before the verdict was handed down, I hosted a group of my chapter sorors at my home. We excitedly swapped paraphernalia, dug through my closets for any hint of crimson or cream, put on our letters and headed to the Lincoln Memorial for "Deltas on the National Mall."

By the time we finally made it to the reflecting pool – after inching our way through traffic packed with other Deltas – the concert was nearly over. But we managed to catch the sorority's version of "The Wobble." Stomping our elephants and hitting our fortitude poses, we were a choreographed wave of thousands of women. The light drizzle waited patiently until the very last cha-cha before upgrading to downpour. We huddled under an elm tree with other sisters trying to save their new dos from the elements. Eventually we all gave in, confronting the rain head-on.

I always forget how long it takes to get a group of black women ready to go out on the town, especially a group having just as much fun with the process as with the outcome. But somehow on Saturday morning we made it to our brunch reservation on time, despite the long lines for my tiny bathroom and the tangled jumble of curling irons blocking the sink. The previous night's rain had turned the temperature down on the entire city, so when we walked outside to hail a cab, the air was no longer heavy. This, we thought, was a good sign.

By the time we got in that evening, after a full day of greeting one out of every three women with a "Hey, soror" and playfully arguing over the steps to strolls we made up in our dorm rooms more than a decade ago, our hearts were full. There is an intangible ease to sisterhood that doesn't require physical connection to be felt, but even still, when you're surrounded on all sides, it's impossible not be overwhelmed in a good way by sisterly love. We were filled to the brim with it by Saturday night.

Dressed for round 2, one of my line sisters got a text alert that the jury's decision in the Zimmerman trial was going to be announced any minute. We all wanted to stay and hear it. There was a heavy silence in the living room as we held our breaths.

When the not-guilty verdict was read aloud, it pierced that silence like a sharp needle in a balloon, the air hissing out violently. We were stunned but not shocked or surprised – a conditioned sentiment that many other African-American adults have expressed. But stunned nonetheless and, most of all, heartbroken. One minute the sun was shining and the clouds kept at bay, then suddenly that once-optimistic sky tipped over, pouring out all the rain.

Almost immediately, everyone headed to social media and the Internet. There was going to be a gathering in front of the White House. By now it was well past midnight. Everyone was dressed to party, not protest, but plans changed quickly.

At the White House, TV host Roland Martin stood in front of a small group of Deltas and asked, "When does a moment become a movement?" He asked how organizations like Delta Sigma Theta would use its power, reach and influence to fight for 21st-century justice. How will we go beyond our ancient letters and legacies to making history?

So much had changed by Sunday morning.

Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, granddaughter of one of Delta's 22 founders and the sorority's national chaplain, changed the message of her scheduled sermon at the convention's ecumenical services on Sunday to "Stand Your Ground."

"Don't get mad; make it right. Don't get mad; stand your ground," McKenzie preached.

"Touch your neighbor and say Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin," McKenzie told the crowd of sorors dressed all in white. "We're not nothing. We're something. We have value and worth. And you can't just keep walking over us and expect us to lay down and take it!"

It was a powerful and solemn message. One that didn't so much overpower the celebratory purpose of the weekend but instead fervently underscored the organization's original purpose: to serve. And after building a foundation of 100 years, Delta should know just how to stand its ground and help turn this moment it now shares a history with into a movement.

(Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of "Bitch Is the New Black," a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.)

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