USA TODAY, Dec. 16, 2011
By Larry Copeland and Yamiche Alcindor
TALLAHASSEE – The Florida A&M University marching band just might be the nation’s best.
The band’s high-energy performances, marked by precise, high-stepping drill routines, have thrilled crowds since 1946. The Marching 100 has performed at major college bowl games, at Super Bowls and at presidential inaugurations.
Its reach is international: In 1989, the French government invited the band to represent the USA in a parade for the bicentennial of the French Revolution.
Far away from its dazzling moves, soaring musical scores and adoring public, though, the FAMU band has long had a darker side: For more than two decades, the Marching 100 has been dogged by a persistent culture of hazing. Band members have been paddled, kicked, beaten — so severely in one case it resulted in kidney failure.
Every few years, the famed band pops into the headlines for something off the field. Then, last month, FAMU band member Robert Champion, 26, of suburban Atlanta died on a band bus outside an Orlando hotel after what police said was a hazing incident. On Monday, three FAMU band members were charged with beating fellow musician Bria Shante Hunter of Atlanta during hazing rituals on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1. Hunter was beaten so severely her thigh was broken.
Champion’s death and Hunter’s alleged beating have pulled back the curtain on the practice of hazing among college marching bands.
Experts say hazing happens at hundreds of colleges and universities.
“This is not an African-American problem,” says Tod Burke, professor of criminal justice at Virginia’s Radford University, who has studied hazing. “It’s an issue that needs to be addressed in every college association.”
Over the past decade, though, most high-profile cases of hazing involving marching bands have occurred at predominantly black institutions such as FAMU, Jackson State University in Mississippi and Southern University in Baton Rouge.
Both recent instances at FAMU involved sub-groups of the band, based on geography or musical section. And both instances, like other alleged incidents, occurred off-campus or outside the supervision of university officials.
Sharon Saunders, a Florida A&M spokeswoman, says every time a hazing allegation was brought to university President James Ammons’ administration they promptly turned it over to university police.
Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, called Thursday for Ammons’ suspension. Students marched from Florida A&M’s campus to the Governor’s Mansion Thursday night demanding that Scott not “overstep his boundaries” by calling for Ammons’ dismissal. Scott addressed students, dressed casually and flanked by former state Sen. Al Lawson and the Rev. R.B. Holmes Jr. of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church and a former FAMU trustee. Scott said said he will meet with Ammons on Friday to discuss options.
Saunders says it’s nearly impossible to stop hazing because students participate surreptitiously. “There’s this culture of secrecy and this conspiracy of silence that has helped to institutionalize hazing,” she says.
Many already know about rituals
Hazing among the Marching 100, however, was no secret. Far from it.
“Ninety-five percent of the people who try to get into the Marching 100 know what it’s about before they get there,” says Devon Redmond, 25, of Troy, Mich. He says he joined the Marching 100 as a freshman saxophone player the same year as Champion. “It’s kind of a family secret.”
The two latest incidents have sparked multiple investigations at the school, including a probe of possible fraud and financial mismanagement related to the band. The uproar also led to the indefinite suspension of the band and caused officials in Georgia to cancel marching band activities at almost 24 high schools because of hazing concerns.
Band hazing at black schools occurs largely because of “cross-pollination” between black Greek-letter organizations and marching bands, says Walter Kimbrough, president of Philander Smith College in Little Rock and author of the book, Black Greek 101: The Culture, Customs and Challenges of Black Fraternities and Sororities. “In February of 1990, the presidents of the black Greek organizations got together and decided to phase out pledging,” he says. “They were hoping that by ending the pledging, they would end the hazing. That’s when band hazing took off.”
Kimbrough says the only way to eliminate hazing in the Marching 100 is to shut the band down for several years, to allow students associated with past practices to move on. “It’s a radical suggestion,” he says. “And I’m not 100% sure it’s the right thing to do. But if they were a fraternity or sorority and somebody died, they would be shut down for years.” He notes that five years ago, two members of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity at FAMU were jailed for hazing under a new state law; the chapter was suspended for seven years. “And nobody died in that case,” he says. “You’ve got the band, and somebody died. What is the appropriate justice?”
A treasured symbol
The FAMU band, with more than 350 members, is the university’s best-known ambassador. It brings in about $300,000 a year in appearance fees and generates much more for the school by attracting other universities to play the FAMU football team so the band can perform at halftime, says Chuck Hobbs, an attorney for Julian White, the Marching 100 band director.
White was fired shortly after Champion’s death. The university reversed that decision and he is now on administrative leave with pay, pending results of the investigations.
Hobbs says his client has a zero-tolerance policy toward hazing . “It is my personal belief that there was a rush to judgment, maybe sparked in part by events at Penn State University and Syracuse University,” he says.
Jabari Prempeh, a Florida attorney who spent five years in the band during the mid-1990s, says White didn’t tolerate hazing.
Marching band hazing is not confined to FAMU.
Chase Martin, 22 and a senior at Norfolk State University in Virginia, played the cymbals in the band during his first three years there.
Martin says he practiced for hours every day and relished the fame his new activity afforded him. But that brought the demands of hazing. Martin says he was never beaten but says freshmen were asked to do treasure hunts, forced to carry others’ bags and not permitted to sleep on buses during road trips.
At FAMU, it was sometimes worse. In 1998, former clarinet player Ivery Luckey was struck some 300 times with a wooden paddle and required hospitalization, according to the Associated Press. In 2001, Marcus Parker, a member of the band’s trumpet section, sued FAMU and individual band members separately, alleging that he was beaten so badly one of his kidneys shut down. The university settled with Parker. He won a judgment of $1.8 million against several individual defendants.
For Redmond, joining FAMU’s band fulfilled a childhood dream to be part of a band he called “legendary for its performances.” With the fame, however, came the expectation that being part of the band was more than just playing well and marching crisply. “You get pushed. You might get slapped. Things happen. It’s not anything to call the police about — at least in my opinion.”
Redmond says that many students, including himself, came to FAMU expecting to be hazed because they were hazed as high school band members.
He says he last talked with Champion this summer. “Robert was older,” he says. “I was shocked that it happened to him, but not so shocked that it happened.”
Champion died, Redmond says, trying to “earn a license to ride Bus C,” the charter bus where the band’s percussionists ride. By walking up and down the bus and being beaten by those inside, Champion was trying to earn respect, Redmond says. “He knew what was going to happen,” he says. “When you do Bus C, everyone knows it.”
Redmond, now an executive assistant at a piano company, was in FAMU’s band for only one semester because of financial reasons, he says. He transferred to Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich., graduating in 2010. Champion’s death, he says, reminded him how much being in FAMU’s band meant to him.
“I wanted to be on Bus C at one point,” he says. “I wanted that respect. That could have been me.”
Alcindor reported from McLean, Va.Contributing: Jennifer Portman and Jordan Culver, Tallahassee Democrat; the Tallahassee Democrat