I first learned of Robert’s Death in the early morning hours after attending the Florida Classic while in Orlando. Since that time, I have followed the numerous articles and news stories that have emanated from this tragic event, and I am compelled to speak on several levels. I speak as a proud FAMU alumnus, a former member of the Marching 100, and a mourner of the death of Mr. Champion. While I am confident in the leadership team at FAMU in handling this immediate crisis, I am compelled to also become involved in fixing this persistent problem both in the Marching 100, at FAMU, and across the country.
I am very much opposed to the single-minded and uninformed solution that has been asserted by Dr. Walter Kimbrough, President of Philander Smith College, that the correct action is to ban the FAMU band simply because this is the action taken in the case of a fraternity or sorority. The way to correct the culture of hazing at FAMU is not by suspending the entire marching band program at FAMU, which is filled with a plethora of students who did not take part in any hazing activities. Dr. Kimbrough does not recognize that a marching band entity is very different from a fraternity or sorority.
This case is not similar at all to fraternity and sorority cases except in the fact that hazing was a key factor, and there are distinct differences between bands and social organizations which Dr. Kimbrough does not acknowledge because 1) he has not been a part of a college marching band, and 2) does not understand the unique history of hazing in marching bands which in many cases pre-dates hazing in fraternities and sororities. This would not only require a look at Black College marching bands but also the marching band traditions at universities throughout the country, which has not been detailed by any scholar to date.
Unlike fraternities and sororities where the chapter itself participates in the initiation of aspirants, there has been no such scale in the Marching 100. All freshmen that are a part of the Marching 100 do not endure or engage in acts of hazing to become a member of the Marching 100, and those who followed the rules should not be punished because of the actions of a few rouge members of the band. Dr. Kimbrough has correctly chronicled hazing at FAMU with the case of Ivery Luckey Case in 1998 where Mr. Luckey was paddled over 300 times in an initiation process. However, the only requirement to be in the Marching 100 clarinet section is the ability to read music, play an instrument, and to march and dance. The fact is that Mr. Luckey was actually trying to become a part of an underground organization known as the “Clones.”
This underground organization is not sanctioned by the Marching 100 nor is it a recognized or university sanctioned organization. Instead, this organization is operated by people who also chose to become members of this unsanctioned, underground organization. A similar organization also exists at FAMU and at many other HBCUs known as “Red Dawgs,” which is an underground organization for band members who are from Georgia.
The “Red Dawgs” organization is actually based out of Atlanta, and is not sanctioned by the Marching 100 or the Florida A&M University. No university sanctions this organization, yet hundreds of students across the country pledge this organization each year.
The 2001 paddling of Marcus Parker- who was my freshman brother in the Marching 100 -was not the result of Marcus Parker trying to become a part of the FAMU Marching 100 trumpet section, of which I was also a member. Marcus made a conscious decision to become a part of the “Screaming Demons in Hollywood Hoods.” Again, this is an underground organization not sanctioned by the Marching 100 and is not a recognized or university sanctioned organization. Instead, this organization is operated former members of the band. As a part of initiation into this underground organization, Marcus was paddled and ultimately suffered kidney failure.
We both entered the band in the same year and marched on the same field. However, our choices led to two different experiences and outcomes.
Suspending the band for a period of time will only leave these underground and unsanctioned organizations that are mainly run by alumni and former band members who are no longer enrolled or officially associated with FAMU, in-waiting to re-establish themselves in the new band when it returns. FAMU and other universities must deal with these illegal, unsanctioned organizations that pose a threat to the lives of students just as they would deal with gangs in a school. They must identify these organizations, understand their culture and structure, find its leaders, and snuff them out from where they hide. They must then punish them individually and collectively.
Shortly after the Ivery Luckey case, the Marching 100 was reconstituted in 1998 with a majority of upperclassmen members being kicked out of the band, which was Dr. White’s first year at the helm. Though the freshman at the time did not cross their sections during the year, they eventually did when the season was over with the assistance of alumni and former members of the band. By the next year, there was once again hazing in the band. No amount of punishment or controls has been able to cede the vestiges of hazing in the band, and I want to assert that none of these will stop hazing.
Hazing must stop at the level in which it is originated: students and alumni.
Not only is banning the band the wrong thing to do, it has also shown to be very ineffective when dealing with hazing for fraternities and sororities. Though chapters of fraternities and sororities have continued to suspend chapters, these chapters come back to the “yard” and still hazing has not been eliminated from the operating structures of these organizations.
Dr. Kimbrough and others simply want to suspend the band because of its prestige and to make an example out of it, but this does little to solve the systemic problem of hazing across the country. Severe punishments have yet to end or prevent hazing in Black Greek Letter Organizations (BGLO), and it will not do so in the Marching Band at FAMU. The fact is that the “death penalty” that has been proposed is truly only a reactionary measure and does little to deal with the culture of hazing. As a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., I know that many fraternities and sororities face the same challenges found in the Marching 100.
In my experience, part of the problem is that the aspiring members want to be hazed as much as the current members want to haze them. Not only is it a part of a compelling tradition, but it also a part of the sentiment that one must go through these rituals to be truly “made.” Further, those who do not engage in these rituals are ostracized for their decision to not engage in such acts. These students are shunned by those who chose to go through the process, and are seen as not a true member.
Students come to the band camps knowing they want to participate in these rituals and some even seek out the opportunity to do so. While the law in Florida only punishes the hazer, the person being hazed is let off the hook for what is a mutual decision to pledge.
FAMU must institute punishments for both those who perform acts of hazing and those who participate in these acts.
It should be noted that none of the incidents of hazing that have been chronicled happened at band practices, sectional rehearsals, or any place that is policed, patrolled or sanctioned by faculty and staff. These events take place at off-campus locations, in the late night and early mornings and in the confines of the places that only students who participate in hazing can detail. Students ensure that faculty and staff are not present.
Dr. Kimbrough also brushes over the fact that, unlike fraternities and sororities, the Marching 100 is not simply an extra-curricular program at FAMU. Instead, the marching band is also an academic unit and a training ground for music majors and future musicians and band directors. The marching band is full of scholarship musicians and music majors who also participate in band to fulfill academic requirements for graduation or to maintain their band scholarships, which allows them to attend FAMU as a student. These students who participate in the band also register for an official university class where they also receive a grade for their participation. This is in no way similar to fraternities and sororities, which are social organizations.
Although there are some who are trying to compare this situation to Penn State and what happened there, I do not believe the two are related at all. This is not the result of a cover-up or an unwillingness to act by the university or the Marching 100 staff. In fact, all the facts point to the opposite.
Over the years, FAMU administration, Dr. White and his staff have consistently tried to institute more and more controls to prevent, stop and eliminate the hazing of students by underground, unsanctioned and rogue organizations, students and alumni. In this year alone, more than 30 people have been dismissed from the band for alleged hazing and participating in hazing. That is not the sign of an administration or staff at FAMU that tolerates hazing or that turns a blind eye.
Banning the band is absolutely the wrong punishment for the Marching 100. This punishment is wrong not because the Marching 100 is a staple of the university or a money making organization for the University, but simply because the actions of the few should not have consequences for the majority. The majority includes the band members who did not haze or participate in hazing, the students who are on scholarship at the university and who need the band as training ground for their future careers and as a requirement for graduation.
Those members who have participated in hazing or being hazed to participate in underground organizations should and will be punished by the university and the law. Dr. Ammons has responded appropriately by 1) suspending all activities of the band indefinitely until the details can be determined, 2) removing Dr. White as band director and securing new leadership for the band, and 3) instituting a task force who can guide the universities current and future response to this unfortunate tragedy.
I am truly saddened by the death of our dear drum major Mr. Robert Champion, and I grieve along with the Champion family, the Marching 100 Alumni family and FAMU alumni across the country. What we all seek is justice. Justice should come from the facts surrounding the untimely death of Mr. Champion and not in the recesses of public opinion or from expert witnesses. These facts are not yet out, but when they come out, then we will also be able to have the appropriate justice for all.
John Michael Lee Jr., PhD, is the policy director for the College Board Advocacy and Policy Center.