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."