Like thousands of other African-Americans of my generation who attended Florida’s public schools, I never missed an opportunity to see the Marching 100, Florida A&M University’s famous band. — And like many of my contemporaries, I regret the band’s fall from grace in the wake of last year’s hazing death of drum major Robert Champion. The band is under indefinite suspension until FAMU’s interim president, Larry Robinson, decides when it will be reactivated.
When I was a child, black high school bands across Florida imitated the 100. Many kids dreamed of becoming members of what a 1958 Miami Herald headline proclaimed as “The Marchingest, Playingest, Band in the Land.”
One of my teachers at Dillard High in Fort Lauderdale had known many FAMU band members. She said that to become a member of the band, not only did the prospect have to be a competent instrumentalist and possess “a body that could make all the moves,” you had to pass “initiation.”
She did not use the term hazing, but we knew that initiation made belonging to the Marching 100 sacred and that only the best could wear the sparkling orange-and-green uniform.
Attending the Florida Classic, the annual football game between FAMU and its in-state rival Bethune-Cookman University (my alma mater), was the event of the year. It was a rite of passage. Robert Champion was beaten to death in a bus after performing at the 2011 Classic.
During my youth, many of us attended FAMU games exclusively for the halftime shows, when the 100 performed its seemingly inhuman gyrations, the pelvic thrusts and circular pelvic movements. We marveled at the swinging instruments, pumping arms, churning legs and the frenetic four-step-per-second triple-time march imitated by marching bands nationwide.
On the surface, these dynamic performances were pure entertainment. We knew, however, that they represented the essence of African-American culture, rhythmic celebrations of our way of life.
We were proud of the band. The performers were black like us. They were the subject of newspaper and magazine articles. They even were on national television. Later, the band would perform for U.S. presidents and would represent the United States in 1989 at Bastille Day in Paris, the bicentennial celebration of the French Revolution.
All of which is why so many in my generation lament what has happened to the Marching 100. And we also are angry that hazing — ritualized brutality — became accepted practice and resulted in the death of 26-year-old Robert Champion.
This young man’s death is what I consider a black-on-black crime in the academy. For that reason, I am contemptuous of the newly formed “Free the 100” campaign at FAMU involving many current and former students fighting to have the band come back before litigation surrounding Champion’s death has ended — even before a respectable period of healing has passed.
The imagery of the campaign, “Free the 100,” crudely evokes an injustice. But band members beat Robert Champion to death. They were not framed by an unjust outside force. They chose to brutalize Robert Champion. What, then, is the band to be freed from? Which of their rights has been violated?
I was glad to read in the Tampa Bay Times that many FAMU students reject the goal of the “Free the 100” campaign.
Shineice Beamon, for example, a 19-year-old freshman from St. Petersburg, told the Times: “The suspension is teaching … that FAMU doesn’t allow hazing and is serious about the situation, because we did lose a student over it. I think the punishment is reasonable because we lost a life, and because of it FAMU has had a lot of criticism.”
Marissa West, FAMU student body president who also serves on the Board of Trustees, had a similar view: “I know why the students feel the way they do, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that there was a tragedy that took place. We’re in no rush or any haste to speed this process up when we could miss steps or be negligent of things that could potentially be hostile to us in the future.”
I have only praise for students such as Beamon and West. My hope is that FAMU officials seek out theirs and other mature voices as they contemplate the Marching 100’s future.
Soon after Robert Champion died, I wanted the band to be given the death penalty. I no longer hold that view after hearing what Robert Champion’s mother, Pam Champion, said: “Our goal is never to stop the music because that’s what my son loved. He loved music, but we certainly want to end the hazing. There is no need for it.”
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