WASHINGTON -- Alarmed by the recent hazing death of a Florida A&M University band student, a coalition of black fraternities and sororities joined with civil rights leader Al Sharpton and others in pledging to work harder to end the practice.
Leaders of the coalition told reporters on Thursday that the type of hazing to which Florida A&M drum major Robert Champion Jr. was subjected before he died has persisted as a rite of passage despite the various actions their individual groups previously have taken to address the problem.
"We no longer can treat it as a series of isolated and unrelated sets of unfortunate incidences," said Jimmy Hammock, president of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc., which heads up the coalition.
"It's almost as if someone has tattooed in their brain this is the way to be accepted," said Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., who said her anti-hazing efforts earned her the nickname "Haze Buster" when she served as a regional director of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., of which she also is a member.
The coalition has invested an initial $25,000 to launch a national campaign that will include radio ads on ESPN, print advertising, an Aug. 11 town hall on hazing at the Marriott Executive Center in Charlotte, N.C., and a National Anti-Hazing Day on Sept. 6.
Champion, 26, died in November after collapsing aboard a bus with other band members after a football game. An autopsy showed he died of internal injuries from a beating that authorities say was a result of hazing.
Eleven band members have been charged with felony hazing and two are charged with misdemeanors. Florida A&M's band has been suspended indefinitely, and Florida university system officials are still looking into whether school officials ignored past warnings about hazing.
Under a bill Wilson is drafting, students would permanently lose eligibility for financial aid if they are convicted of hazing under state law, or are officially sanctioned by a college or university for hazing. The bill also would require states to enact felony criminal hazing statutes or lose transportation funding.
Ricky L. Jones, political science professor at the University of Louisville and author of a book on hazing in black fraternities, said the campaign may be the first to address hazing in black groups on a national level and is needed because there has not been enough outrage among blacks over deaths and injuries related to hazing. He said he is skeptical whether the campaign will yield results, given that hazing is deeply seeded in the culture.
"I'm worried about preservation of lives of students," he said. Eliminating organizations where hazing occurs gets rid of a threat to students' lives, he said.
Delta Sigma Theta Sorority president Cynthia Butler-McIntyre, chair of the National Pan Hellenic Council, an umbrella group of black Greek organizations, said in a letter that more far-reaching efforts are warranted because hazing is "so deeply ingrained into the culture" of college life.
"Despite all of our efforts, we have not reached a zero level of hazing, to our great dismay," Butler-McIntyre's letter said.
The coalition's campaign clearly hits themes intended to resonate with young black people. Print advertisements will feature black-and-white photos of athletes from years past, standing with trophies, in line or in a locker room with blood that appears to have been spattered on the lens of the camera when the photos were shot.
"Let's Not Beat the Life Out of a Beautiful Legacy," say the ads, some which include black student athletes.
"Since we were enslaved we fought for a right to read and write and educate. We didn't come to the 21st century with an African-American president and now decide that we are going to inflict pain rather than exult ourselves with educational excellence," Sharpton, a member of Phi Beta Sigma, said in a videotaped statement.
"If we can get black folks to stand up and say enough is enough, if we can lead black folks to doing it, then that's what we want to do," said Daryl Anderson, Phi Beta Sigma's executive director.