For many of us, the mere sight and sound of a full marching band from a historically black college is nothing less than an amazing, splendid spectacle. Moving in complete synchronicity, they stride as one
mass unit like a musical army; one large wave of proud, high stepping humanity. The breathtaking, precise dance moves. The ground shaking drum beats and blaring horns majestically captivate and overwhelm our senses: Entire stadium complexes vibrate under their power.
It is a proud tradition that represents the best in our students. Being good enough to make the band promotes self-confidence, poise, and a sense of belonging that is so crucial to human development. It gives our students the opportunity for expression that is hard to find elsewhere. It encourages academic effort and promotes competence across the curriculum.
So when reports surfaced in 2011 of the beating death of a drum major at Florida A&M University, one of the premiere HBCU (Historically Black College and University) band programs, a lot of us were left in shock. In 2001, 26-year-old drum major, Robert Champion, was observed vomiting before he was found unresponsive aboard the bus. He had bruises on his chest, arms, shoulders and back and died of internal bleeding. The incident seemed to symbolize everything marching bands are not: Ten members of the band were charged with third degree felony hazing.
But last week, a Florida prosecutor caught many off guard when he announced that twelve former Florida A&M University band members were to be charged with manslaughter in the case. The initial charges are being increased to second-degree manslaughter which carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison.
Hazing, at times, has been a widespread “rite of passage” for students new to an organization or program. Many, including the Miami Herald, have congratulated the prosecutor for taking a tough stand against the 12 accused, making the point that a harsh punishment will send a signal to everyone involved- students, school administrators alike. Th hope is that that this type of behavior will not be tolerated.
And while all of this is true, I wish to focus on another aspect of the case: the fates of the young men accused. It is not unusual these days for African American males to be caught up in the criminal justice system for one reason or another. But the sheer idea of the possible conviction of a dozen black males who were once enrolled in college in a single event represents a new and painful low for our community.
Champion’s death is a tragedy for everyone involved: his parents, the school his friends, and everyone who knew him. But the second part of this tragedy is that we have potentially lost 12 lives to the criminal justice system for their involvement in this crime. These men are supposed to be our best and brightest- the twenty-somethings who were to lead our communities and have an impact on the world. The irony of this case is that these were not young men who failed to go to college. But they still have found themselves, like too many of our African American males, wrapped up in the criminal justice system.
It’s a familiar tale: As reported by TheRoot.com last week, the previous decade has been yet another story of the long-standing racial disparities in sentencing and incarcerating black men in the United States. As the piece found: “According to the Department of Justice, there were 841,000 black men in jail and prisons in 2009, 49,400 more than there were in 2000; however, the rate of incarceration dropped slightly. Although the rate increase among white males was higher during that time period, the current rate for black males is still almost seven times that of white males. In 2009, black males represented 40 percent of the total male prison population, compared with 45 percent in 2000.”
And now we have, potentially, 12 more black men going to prison for as much as 15 year each because of a hazing ritual.
In an odd dichotomy however, exactly two months prior to his assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr., asked that he be remembered as a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness. In the speech, entitled the drum Major Instinct King insisted that we are all imbued with a human condition that causes a desire to be out front, to be recognized, a thirst for attention; we want to distinguish ourselves from others.
It is this thirst for leadership and distinction that has characterized many of our college students in the past. However, sometimes the quest for acknowledgement and acceptance has been allowed to degenerate into a follow the leader mindset that has little to do with honor, respect, or the pursuit of scholastic excellence.
Dr. King’s request has been honored. He is, in fact, remembered as the drum major for peace, justice, and righteousness; it is enshrined on his memorial forever. For Robert, let us now remember him as a drum major for healing the healing of the gaping wound were our hearts used to be as we continue to grieve the devastation caused by these distressing chapters in our history.