January 13, 2012

Dr. King, the "Drum Major Instinct" and the death of Robert Champion

As we head into this weekend in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the  family of Robert Champion, Jr. is mourning his death and suing those they hold responsible for their wrongful loss. Champion was a drum major for Florida A&M’s Marching 100, who died in the wake of a hazing ritual on a band bus on November 19, 2011. Friends and family say Champion was gay, and GLSEN’s great partner the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC) is calling for a U.S. Justice Department investigation into whether his death was a hate crime. The emergence of this story into national prominence on the eve of Dr. King’s holiday seems tragically inevitable – although troublingly overdue.

Dr. King's very last sermon, delivered in 1968, was a meditation on "the Drum Major Instinct": a desire to lead, to be first, to be praised, and to make a mark on the world. (You can find the full text of this sermon here, along with the audio file, if you really want to give yourself goose bumps.) Dr. King argued that we all have this instinct, which can rightfully be condemned when it leads to destructive, selfish behavior. But it is a natural instinct, Dr. King went on, present in everyone, that can be the source of great change and true greatness when it is harnessed through service and love. Contemplating his own legacy in the sermon's conclusion (eerily close to the hour of his own assassination), Dr. King said "If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness."

Robert Champion, Jr. was an actual drum major in one of the most celebrated marching bands of the HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). Friends and family say that he was a crusader against the hazing that is such a central and dangerous part of the marching band experience at HBCUs. His own success as a leader within the band was a testament to the possibility that one could rise through the ranks without submitting to the degrading rituals invented by band leaders to test emerging candidates. Champion was, apparently, in line to become head drum major for the Marching 100. And he was gay. Today a painful set of inquiries seek to determine what role each of these factors played in the intense beating that led to his death.

Champion sought to be a leader, and to lead the way to a more just system within the band by resisting violent and artificial rituals. A drum major for justice. A central purpose of our work at GLSEN from the beginning – and a pillar of our current strategic plan – is to support emerging student leaders and to ensure that leadership opportunities throughout the K-12 school years are open to all students, whether they are straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual and/or transgender. And we seek to break the cycle of learned hatred and violence directed at LGBT people that some of Champion’s fellow students may have channeled into the beating that led to his death. Each year, we meet and support a new group of emerging Drum Majors for Justice who decide to channel their instinct into GSA leadership or other acts of brave service, some as simple as staying silent on the Day of Silence or speaking out during Ally Week or expressing their aspirations for a better future through artistic expression during No Name-Calling Week.

We at GLSEN hope you will take a moment to sign NBJC’s petition (at www.nbjc.org ) so that the facts regarding Robert Champion, Jr.’s death will come to light. And take a moment to reflect on the work and leadership of the remarkable student leaders like Robert whose efforts we support, and whose work is going to change the world. Thank you as a GLSEN supporter for all that you do to make our work possible, and to ensure that the arc of the moral universe does indeed bend toward justice.

Warmest regards, and many thanks.
Eliza

Eliza Byard

About Eliza Byard

Dr. Eliza Byard is the Executive Director of GLSEN - the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network.

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