Randall Carr had dreamed of playing in Florida A&M University's 'Marching 100' band ever since watching them perform at a game while he was still in elementary school. He secured the role of drum major in his high school marching band and got accepted to Florida A&M in 2005. Even as a lowly freshman, Carr was certain he'd one day be jamming on the FAMU football field at halftime.
But things didn't exactly unfold that way for Carr, who now admits he was woefully naive when it came to understanding what was actually required to become a member of FAMU's marquee organization—which has a long and prestigious history of performing at major events such as presidential inaugurations, the Grammy Awards, and the Super Bowl.
"I'd heard of hazing before, but only when it came to pledging with sororities and fraternities," says Carr, 25 years old, who now plays his drums at a club on the weekends in Orlando. "I did try out for the band and I made it. But then I saw stuff that I wasn't about to let happen to me. My time with the band was very short-lived."
What Carr says he witnessed first hand was allegedly a hush-hush and long-running ritual that involves severely beating new band members to prove them worthy of being allowed into the elite club. Carr says he abruptly dropped out of the band he had longed to be a part of after seeing one new member beaten so badly he could barely walk the next day.
Band member Robert Champion wasn't so lucky. Champion shared the same dream of becoming a drum major at FAMU, and after trying out for the band twice he was invited to join. Last year, just after performing at a football game in November, Champion collapsed on the school's chartered bus. Students said he'd been vomiting and having difficulty breathing moments before. He died a few hours later at an Orlando hospital.
Apparently, Champion had taken part in a rite of passage called "Crossing Bus C" just before he died. Crossing Bus C is an initiation process in which band members attempt to run down the center aisle from the front door of the bus to the back, while being punched, kicked and otherwise assaulted by senior band members, according to police reports of the Champion incident.
An autopsy later found that the 26-year-old Champion had been badly beaten, and had contusions on his chest, arms, shoulder, and back. The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide and revealed that Champion had suffered "hemorrhagic shock as the result of blunt force trauma sustained during a hazing incident."
Champion's death has put sharp national focus on the issue of hazing at historically black colleges, and the deadly consequences of such rituals. Last week Florida brought third-degree felony hazing charges against 11 people, mostly students, in the death of Champion. Two others were charged with misdemeanor hazing. Additionally, two Florida A&M faculty members resigned earlier this month as a result of the hazing investigation. More than 30 people were on the bus the day Champion was beaten, leaving the door open for more to be charged, say people familiar with the case. Additional FAMU officials may also be forced out as the investigation into hazing at the university continues.
"It's a shame it had to go down like that, but beating people is crazy," says Carr. "Maybe this will make people think twice about using their classmates as punching bags, all to prove nothing at all."
Maybe it will and maybe it won't. Hazing of all kinds has thrived for decades at Tallahassee-based FAMU and other universities despite extensive efforts to stop it, say school officials. Even with the serious injuries and deaths that have occurred over the years at FAMU and elsewhere, the culture of hazing in fraternities and sororities, bands and other social groups continues in large part because of the cloak of secrecy that surrounds it, particularly at black colleges.
"Hazing happens deep under cover in an environment where students just won't tell," says a FAMU official who declined to be identified due to potential lawsuits against the school. "Yes, we hear rumblings of beatings and abuse here and there due to hazing, but no one actually reports who is doing it and where. It becomes very difficult to nail it down." FAMU had no official comment.
Those in and around FAMU find it hard to believe that school officials weren't aware of the ongoing hazing ritual that has been a "not-so-secret" secret for years. Some parents even told police they'd contacted FAMU officials to complain about the verbal and physical abuse their children were suffering in the band just weeks before Champion's death per police reports of the incident.
Longtime band director Julian White told authorities after Champion's death that he'd repeatedly warned school officials about persistent hazing and the chances of serious injury occurring. He maintained he was not given the proper support needed to end it. White was dismissed after Champion's death, but is suing for reinstatement according to school officials familiar with the case.
White has said he instituted mandatory antihazing workshops for band members a while back, but the program had little impact. White began the workshops in 2004 after Ivery Luckey won a $50,000 settlement against FAMU for a 1998 hazing where he said he was paddled more than 300 times and wound up in the hospital.
In 2001 trumpet player Marcus Player was hospitalized with kidney failure after being hazed, and a jury awarded him $1.8 million dollars when he sued the five men who beat him. FAMU settled with Player out of court for an undisclosed amount.
Luckey says he understands why the hazing continues, despite all efforts to end it. "It's the pressure of it all," he says. "No one wants to be beaten up, but a lot of kids feel it's the only way to get out on the field. You have kids in high school right now just waiting for their chance to be hazed so they can be in the FAMU band."
Champion's mother, Pam, says she believes her son was so loyal to the legacy of the FAMU band that he too would have refused to report abuse, no matter the circumstances.
"That was his dream, so no, I don't believe he would have said anything or reported anything," Champion says. "Just like so many of the other kids who saw this happen regularly. They simply said nothing."
While the practice of hazing at colleges and universities dates back to the Middle Ages, the use of physical punishment is more often associated with black institutions. Hazing at white universities often revolves around excessive drinking, the performance of humiliating acts, and pranks played on others.
Morehouse College in Atlanta and Hampton University in Virginia are just a few of the black colleges accused many times over of severe hazing incidents that caused serious harm to the victims. Hazing and branding on the body, usually the arm, have been steadfast rituals for decades among certain black fraternities.
Several African-American scholars say the ritual of physical abuse in black college hazing is deeply rooted in ancient African rituals that celebrate adolescent males' passage into manhood.
Ricky L. Jones, author of Blaze Haze and a professor of pan-African studies at the University of Louisville, says that for many black men, the ability to endure extreme physical torture is to show immense strength and power. Displaying both brings a level of respect and admiration that many yearn to have.
"Hazing is about social position," says Jones. "For many males in general, but especially black men, the most physical guy is the most respected guy. The more punishment you can take—the more of a man you are. That means something in a world that doesn't always give black men respect."
Pam Champion believes the only thing hazing earned her son Robert last November was an early, brutal, and unnecessary death. She also believes the felony-hazing charges brought last week against 11 people was far too light to send a serious message to those intent on continuing hazing practices at colleges and universities around the country.
"We were disappointed because we expected manslaughter or murder charges," Champion says. "Yes, we're glad charges were filed, but my son is dead."