Drum major's death echoes beyond revered band
Parents and officlas are scrutinizing black college marching bands after the death of FAMU drum major Robert Champion.
November 26th, 2011
07:52 AM ET

Drum major's death echoes beyond revered band

By Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN

(CNN) - Knees fly high. Hips swivel. Trombones sway. Bass drums thump. Tubas bellow. Cymbals crash.

The scene - with its electrifying soundtrack - is a major draw at many historically black colleges and universities, where throngs of students turn out for marching band performances.

"The bands are so entertaining that people attend these games for the halftime show. ... People sit in their seats at halftime. They leave in the third quarter. It's just big," said Christy Walker, 36, who runs a website dedicated to black college marching band culture.

For the past week, the message boards on Walker's website have been buzzing with passionate posts about the situation at Florida A&M University (FAMU). The school fired the band director and stopped all performances of its famous "Marching 100" after authorities said they suspect hazing caused the death of a 26-year-old drum major.

As authorities investigate the student's death, the accusations surrounding the widely revered and imitated band could have an impact far beyond the Florida university's campus.

"There are a lot of great bands, over 50 or so, but FAMU is definitely the most well-known out there. ... They have set a lot of trends throughout the years," said Walker, who played clarinet in the band at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. "They're just very innovative in a lot of the concepts that they do, and a lot of that has spread to other bands."

For decades, the band has been adored by many who never even joined its ranks, said Lawrence Patrick III, 36, the CEO of a technology start-up in San Francisco who played bass drum in the Marching 100 for two years.

"It's not just something people from FAMU are proud of. It's something that black people in general are really proud of," he said.

'It was magic'

Bill Maxwell watched FAMU's Marching 100 perform for the first time when he was in middle school. Decades later, the memory remains as crisp as their bright orange and green uniforms.

"It was the most thrilling thing I'd ever seen," said Maxwell, now 66. "I didn't know anyone could really move their legs that fast. When they were marching, you could barely see their legs move. It was magic."

Opinion: What I learned from the FAMU marching band

Back home, Maxwell marched with his friends in a recently plowed field. They carried sticks that they pretended were instruments. He carried a beat-up bugle that he had found in a nearby landfill.

"I don't know of a single black kid growing up who had any interest in music who didn't want to be in FAMU's Marching 100," said Maxwell, who wrote in a 2010 column for the St. Petersburg Times that the success of the band and its leader inspired him during the Jim Crow-era Florida of the 1950s.

The band's reputation for an innovative style incorporating popular music and elaborate dance formations into its routines earned it a following and near-celebrity status on campus. And as students who graduated from the university went on to lead other bands, their reputation gained a wider reach.

"We were able to build this network of other important institutions based on this one successful institution," Patrick said. "Black people are really proud of our bands. We're proud of the difference of style and the flavor and the flair and the flamboyance."

Worries about a wider impact

After a game in Orlando on November 19, members of the Marching 100 returned to their hotel, where drum major Robert Champion "reportedly threw up in the parking lot and started complaining of not being able to breathe," the sheriff's office said. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital.

Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said this week that hazing was involved, but added that authorities were trying to determine an official cause of death.

Word spread rapidly through student and alumni networks at historically black college and universities, where marching bands are among the most prestigious institutions.

"It's one of those things, when the bad news hits one, all of the schools feel it. Of course, it magnifies everything about the black schools," said Maxwell, who attended Wiley College and Bethune-Cookman University. "We all cringe when it happens to one."

Patrick, the Marching 100 alum, said he was devastated by the news.

"It's incredibly tragic. It's a huge loss, and it's felt by all alumni of FAMU, not just people who were in the band," he said. "The band is the most beloved institution associated with the school, period."

Walker, who runs the website dedicated to black college marching bands, said she was worried programs at other schools would be put "under the microscope" by the hazing allegations.

"It just puts a big black eye over all black college bands. I think maybe presidents will be holding band staff more accountable for what goes on. I think that this will impact recruiting. ... It also might impact the amount of money and budget that are set aside for these programs," she said. "It's at the highest profile school, so I think it will make everybody look and see what their programs are doing."

Misael Garzon, 23, said he was shocked when he heard the news about a program many view as "immortal."

"I was just obviously praying for the family, praying for the (Marching) 100, even though we're rivals," said Garzon, who played saxophone in South Carolina State University's band. "Hazing is an issue that has to be stopped in many areas of college. But still, I had friends who marched for the (Marching) 100. It's just that family bond. It saddens me to see a great program have to go through this."

'It becomes a passion inside you'

Walker described the hazing allegations at FAMU as an "anomaly" among bands at black colleges.

"There are thousands of students that go through these programs that have a very pleasurable experience," said Walker, whose parents met while playing in the band at North Carolina A&T. "I remember seeing bands (when I was) 5 years old, growing up and saying, 'I can't wait until I get to march in a band like that.' ... You see it, and then it makes you want to be a musician, to be a part of something bigger than yourself, part of something good."

Garzon said the power and intensity of the bands from FAMU and Bethune-Cookman mesmerized him when he watched them square off at the Florida Classic in Orlando.

"You fall in love with it and you grow with it," he said. "It becomes a passion inside you."

Jimmy Hernandez, 27, said he was "head over heels" when he first heard Bethune-Cookman's band play in 2001. He played oboe and piccolo at the university - an experience he said gave him a work ethic and discipline that helped him do well in school and establish a successful career.

"I consider it the best decision I've made in my life," he said.

But parents of students considering joining bands at historically black colleges and universities may be hesitant in light of the allegations at FAMU, he said.

Parents should take the time to talk with band directors about their concerns, Hernandez said, rather than steering their children away from organizations that could help them achieve success.

But Maxwell said universities must do more to respond to hazing problems.

"If I were a parent right now of a kid who wanted to go to school for the purpose of being in one of those bands, I would think twice," Maxwell said.

Anyone connected with hazing at FAMU must be held accountable and face punishment, he said.

"Some good may come out of it," he said. "It may teach other schools to stop it."

soundoff (595 Responses)
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    April 7, 2012 at 1:14 am | Report abuse |
  2. TheHBCUCareerCenter

    Responsible HBCU professionals encourage students to increase their campus involvement to develop the leadership skills that employers look for in new college grads. It is sad to see young men and women, artist-musicians, no less, dismissed from schools, or worse, die, because of a practice like hazing. Employers look at college grad resumes for highlights like band involvement to get a sense of an applicants team skills, maturity and discipline. My fear is that some might now look down on band participation as a negative. No company wants to hire a hazer. No organization knowingly wants to hire a bully.

    Actions have consequences – good and bad. I applaud HBCU professional staff who work very hard to eliminate this culture from campus. Not the band culture. The violence culture. Band membership should be about building people up. Both my kids are musicians and I know the hours they put in to become good at their instruments. To think they would be beat up in college because they chose to pursue marching band there, is a frightening thought.

    I urge young people to think before they act about long term ramifications of actions. Is it worth jeopardizing your future ability to sustain yourself, your family and your community, because you chose to haze a student who dared to join a college marching band? College students are young adults who can make this decision. Some HBCU professionals might be tempted to look the other way because these kinds of programs tend to have higher graduation rates.

    Complex issues often demand introspection from everyone involved, if we are going to find a solution.

    Our hearts go out to the parents of the young man who died. I am sure they were looking forward to his commencement ceremony; not his funeral.

    December 31, 2011 at 9:30 am | Report abuse |
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    December 29, 2011 at 6:36 am | Report abuse |
    • Zgore

      (continued ) Finally, this little bit was done dtlrciey after marching the entire parade in some bloody cold weather. Everyone was exhausted and worn out but they still had enough oomph left in them to please a crowd that started small and quickly got bloody huge. Lets try not to be unkind. I'd appreciate it. Thanks in advance.

      September 16, 2012 at 2:09 am | Report abuse |
  6. me

    Colleges should NEVER be held accountable for what happens to the students. They are ALL adults with adult thinking-if they aren't, the parents are to blame-if they do NOT want what ever the hazing is for, THEN DON'T PARTICIPATE. It's that easy and it's about time we hold OURSELVES accountable for how dumb we all act!!

    November 29, 2011 at 9:55 am | Report abuse |
    • Steve MacIsaac

      I believe that most parents would feel differently, or at least not believe that schools have no obligation to protect the children.

      December 7, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Report abuse |
      • Dan

        Their children are now adults.

        December 8, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Report abuse |
  7. HBCU Marching Band Supporter

    A Tribute To Mr, Champion And The FAMU Program

    November 28, 2011 at 4:01 pm | Report abuse |
  8. SGT Mac

    As a graduate of an HBCU and a member of the band throughout my college time and a Music Major, I have to say that hazing does happen. George, for you to even question why this article is all about "Black" colege bands is nothing short of ingnorance. You must have no idea on why HBCU's were even created. An HBCU band is completely differnt from you traditional Corp Style bands like you see at like Florida State. I was hazed just being a freshman who didnt know anything. No physical harm was done. Each HBCU band is a NON HAZING ORGANIZATION!!!! it says it in the letter from the begining. The band director did his job in preventing hazing in his face. But FAMU's band is more than 500+ people. he cant watch everybody outside of band. As an adult you have the right to say NO! I dont haze my soldiers at all. Corrective training is one thing, but physical abuse is not permitted. Until you expereince being in an HBCU band and understand what we have to deal with everyday, you cant say anything at all. It is not about race we have had a few white people join the band and they were treated the same way as we all did.

    November 28, 2011 at 2:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cleareye

      The existence of hazing is an admission of inferiority. Can you imagine the New York Philharmonic "hazing" a new member? How about the Joint Chiefs of Staff? It's not even justifiable in elementary school. Prisons? Maybe.

      November 28, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Report abuse |
      • SGT Mac

        I agree. I'm not saying that its ok. i was stating that it happens and people dont step up and say NO. We can try to stop it but it will continue. We can stop it at the schools but after practice is over, how can we stop what goes on in their rooms on and off campus? As a member of a fraternity we got hazed not forcefully but as adults it was our own decision to continue to go through with it. My prayer goes out to Mr. Campion's family and to the band directo Dr. Julian White. He didnt deserve to get fired. The having the president stop all functions in the music department, that would hurt many music majors who graduate next month. Why? One of the biggest performances for a major is their senior recital. So having him stop all performances, that will stop the senior reciatl and that student will not graduate. This thing is hurting students who were not even in the band program but happens to be a music major. I hope this is resolved soon. God willing no one else will get hurt or worse.

        November 28, 2011 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
  9. mm

    Hazing exists in the military as well and there are strick rules in place in an attempt to prevent it from happening. Unfortunately, it will always exists.
    ....USMC GySgt

    November 28, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Report abuse |
  10. H W Ray

    Having pledged two frats I understand hazing. But no one was ever hazed in my college band or choir in the 4 years I was there. Never even thought of it. Performing organizations have enough to deal with. I don't understand this mindset at all.

    November 28, 2011 at 11:46 am | Report abuse |
  11. halai11

    It is sad that A life has been lost. One that placed his goal, based on his parents comments, on becoming a FAMU drum major. How far would one go to become what one aspires? How far? Endure countless and numerous hours practicing? Man-up to ridicule and hazing? Yet, the question that needs to be asked is 'what was Mr. Champion's health history?' Was his passing (with condolences to his family) mostly attributed to it?

    November 28, 2011 at 11:41 am | Report abuse |
  12. Bubba

    Drive through any campus and see all the boys wearing flip-flops in the cold; they are being hazed. But, if it's voluntary, it's not REALLY hazing. Get used to it; they haze each other and kill the weak ones when they can. Didn't you read LORD OF THE FLIES in school?

    November 28, 2011 at 11:40 am | Report abuse |
  13. vee

    Stop! Stop! Stoped ! This problem can be stop by one person, the Band Director. But what did he say " Oh I had several meeting about this hazing stuff with the band and I told them". So now Band Director you expect us to believe that FAMU can perfect mind blowing precision moves and play so loud that you can here them thru three states, now they don't listen when you say stop hazing and you ( Band Director) are in charge and been for a long time. When you are the leader you must lead. There's a Dad out there who won't see his son anymore. It"s not about FAMU or other HBCU bands, it"s about Band Director who love ones trusted there most prize possession. Somebody must pay and it's not the kids.

    November 28, 2011 at 11:32 am | Report abuse |
    • mm

      VEE, how is it that you expect anyone in authority to prevent it? Do you think they make it known that hazing is going on or do it in front of authority figures? As a USMC GySgt, I can tell you my guys aren't doing this crap in front of my face and seldom if ever does the guy being hazed report it.

      November 28, 2011 at 12:13 pm | Report abuse |
  14. George

    Here's a question – if everyone in this country preaches about equality and how everyone should be treated the same, why are there special colleges and marching bands just for one particular group of people? If there was a white college you better believe people would be screaming racism. This entire article focuses on BLACK marching bands and their culture. How about just marching bands in general, why bring race into it?

    November 28, 2011 at 11:31 am | Report abuse |
    • Fanye

      You're joking, right? Read up on the history of HBCUs.

      November 29, 2011 at 12:55 pm | Report abuse |
  15. X Jam

    Hazing is just not in HBCU's!!! There are different levels of hazing mental etc......... we were never just hit on jus because and it never got out of hand and no one ever got hurt. we ALWAYS HAD A CHOICE TO LET THEM TOUCH US OR NOT!!!!!

    November 28, 2011 at 11:24 am | Report abuse |
  16. Monica

    He was an adult and his parents probably "didn't feel the need" to make decisions for him. I am the mother of a BCU band member. When my child called me and told me she had been hit in the back of the head, I got up out of my bed, drove to Daytona, put my PhD in my pocket and acted like a straight MONEKEY!! (MOANKEE). I was not having it. My child is on a music scholarship and I could have cared less about her losing it. The person that hit her was immediately suspended and I sued him personally for her hospital bill.

    I am sure that this happens in all HBCU programs. It takes a parent with a LOUD mouth to put an end to the next child being hurt. I am glad to hear that the Champions are filing a lawsuit. If it were up to me, the entiore band program would be suspended for a year!!

    Mad Band Parent!!

    November 28, 2011 at 11:20 am | Report abuse |
  17. NorCalMojo

    This story doesn't add up. Hazing deaths are alcohol related. This guy was beaten to death.

    November 28, 2011 at 11:12 am | Report abuse |
  18. Monica

    He was an adult and his parents probably "didn't feel the need" to make decisions for him. I am the mother of a BCU band member. When my child called me and told me she had been hit in the back of the head, I got up out of my bed, drove to the school, put my PhD in my pocket and acted like a straight MONEKEY!! (MOANKEE). I was not having it. My child is on a music scholarship and I could have cared less about her losing it. The person that hit her was immediately suspended and I sued him personally for her hospital bill.

    I am sure that this happens in all HBCU programs. It takes a parent with a LOUD mouth to put an end to the next child being hurt. I am glad to hear that the Champions are filing a lawsuit. If it were up to me, the entire band program would be suspended for a year!!

    Mad Band Parent!!

    November 28, 2011 at 10:52 am | Report abuse |
  19. budwhite451

    had to google it but conensus seems to be " crossing the c bus" some warped ritual of being beaten from one end of the bus to the other to induce respect which to me should be homicide

    November 28, 2011 at 10:36 am | Report abuse |
    • L. Nino

      @ budwhite451 Bus "C", indeed. I marched for that band for four years and I have seen a TON of things many would frown upon. What's worse? Fellow members (past & present.. some.. not all) are really making an effort on certain social media sites to have other members & friends "keep quiet and just pray". Ummm no. There is no need for ANYONE to be silent in the event of a death! In the words of a friend "Silence is not the appropriate response to crime".

      November 28, 2011 at 10:58 am | Report abuse |
  20. mm

    How is hazing different from corporal punishment? Explain it to me! These kids and adults who practice hazing in school are the first ones to call 911 on someone who is whipping them as a kid. Abuse is abuse no matter what you call it.

    November 28, 2011 at 9:41 am | Report abuse |
  21. mm

    Was this article supposed to be about the hazing and death of a student or about some frig-g-ing marching band? How disgusting to try and take the focus off the real story. There is plenty of space on CNN to promote bands. There are friends and family mourning the loss of this kid and all the article could do is to talk about marching bands. Shameful!

    November 28, 2011 at 9:38 am | Report abuse |
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