By Dr. Eliza Byard
Dr. Byard is the executive director of GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network.
As we head into this long weekend in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the family of Robert Champion 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 Nov. 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 be rightfully 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 was, in fact, an actual drum major in one of the 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.
Read “Safe LGBT Spaces: What Schools Can Learn From Employee-Resource Groups” for more on increasing inclusion for LGBT in schools.
Before you head off for the weekend, take a moment to sign NBJC’s petition (at www.nbjc.org) so that the facts regarding Robert Champion’s will come to light. And take a moment to reflect on the work and leadership of the remarkable students whose efforts we support, and whose work is going to change the world.
Read other accounts on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
Before MLK, None of My Accomplishments Would Have Been Possible
DiversityInc’s Denyse Leslie, senior vice president of consulting, draws a parallel between Dr. King’s firsts (first arrest, first book published, first Black man to win the Nobel Peace Prize) and the firsts of Blacks still alive (or recently deceased) as they live out Dr. King’s vision.
Taking Risks for Your Brothers: The Power of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Words
Human-rights activist Raymond Brown learned about the need for humanity from Dr. King.
How Has Dr. King’s Legacy Changed Lives?
While Hurricane Irene hit during the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial dedication, R. Fenimore Fisher reflected on how Dr. King’s actions changed the law that changed society.
What Dr. King Really Meant: The Obligation That Benefits Everyone
Why is the business case for diversity a reality and not just a theory? It is directly due to Dr. King and the civil-rights era, explains DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti.