A secret, ancient society gathered inside the stucco walls of Alcazar Temple 179 of The Mystic Shrine in North Sacramento, where the group’s newest Imperial Potentate, Carl Parker, was welcomed by men in black suits, red fezzes and scimitars.
With a Hollywood flair, Parker was ushered to the stage Friday night by several of his fellow Prince Hall Shriners. About 20 African American men akin to the Knights of the Round Table – including retired law enforcement officers, combat veterans and teachers – stood in reverence to their new leader.
The 71-year-old Vacaville resident presides over the Ancient Egyptian Arabic Order Nobles Mystic Shrine Inc., the world’s largest black fraternal organization, with more than 300,000 members. About 27,000 of them who are actively involved in charitable work belong to the order in 47 states, including 1,100 in California, and 17 nations, Parker said.
The all-male social and charitable organization – known for its secret handshakes, passwords, symbols and initiation rites, along with plenty of pomp and circumstance – has contributed $659,000 to the National Diabetes Initiative to fight Type 2 diabetes, a disease “that runs rampant in African Americans,” Parker said. The group plans to raise $1 million.
Parker, a retired Air Force officer and high school teacher, thanked his brethren, noting he was “safe at home” because he was made a Shriner here back in 1972. He said he was also proud of the order for the money it has helped raise in the fight against diabetes. “You have a special place in my heart,” he said.
The Prince Hall Shriners, patterning themselves after noblemen of yore, are dedicated to fostering civic, economic and educational development, he said. His order grants scholarships, hands out food baskets to the needy and helps young people break out of lives marked by drugs, crime and delinquency. Past Prince Hall Shriners have included Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall, the first African American member of the U.S. Supreme Court.
With the motto “Having fun helping kids,” the larger organization is famous for its Shriners Hospitals for Children, including one at 2425 Stockton Blvd. in Sacramento, specializing in aiding kids with orthopedic challenges, burns, spinal cord injuries and cleft lips and palates, regardless of their ability to pay. The hospitals are administered by the Ben Ali Shriners, a historically white fraternal order separate from the Prince Hall Shriners, whose support goes to the St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.
Although the Shriners’ roots go back 1,300 years ago to the founding of the Freemasons secret order during the Middle Ages, Parker said men of color were not allowed into the Shriners, one of the world’s most elite fraternal orders, until the British lifted the ban in 1775. It wasn’t until 1893 that Ali Rofelt Pasha, a high-ranking Shriner from the Arabian Peninsula, created the Prince Hall Shriners for African Americans, Parker said. While they’ve begun to integrate and put on Christmas balls with the Ben Ali Shriners, “there’s still dissension in the Southeast portion of America where many white Shriners refuse to interact,” Parker said.
The Shriners’ signature fez represents knowledge and dates back to the seventh century, when nobles heading to Mecca were accosted by bandits and forced to take another route through the city of Fez in present-day Morocco. While those nobles who visited Mecca were Muslim, Shriners have long been nondenominational and share a general belief in God, Parker said. Their sister organization, the Imperial Court’s Daughters Auxiliary, accepts women related to Shriners by birth or marriage.
Parker said you can’t apply to become a Shriner but instead must be recruited by a member who thinks you’re a person of good character dedicated to improving the lives of others. Parker said he enjoys the regalia, rituals, songs and parades during which fez-clad Shriners delight children by driving around in circles in red mini-cars.
After handing Parker the gavel Friday at the Alcazar Temple, Potentate Walter Lomax intoned, “As I was riding through the hot desert sands ... I was tired of riding that camel and got to thinking about the obligations that we made.”
Parker, who was elected last month at the national conference in Tampa to a one-year term, asked his members to register voters and help get out the vote next month. “Do it in shopping centers, grocery stores,” he said. “We don’t tell you how to vote, but every vote matters.”