After actor and activist Hill Harper published his first book, “Letters to a Younger Brother,” he discovered that juvenile court judges had assigned his work to book reviews. These reports led him to receive letters from incarcerated young black men, including one from a 16-year-old named Bryan.
“As you said in your book, a lot of young people don’t have a role model. I didn’t have one. That’s why I’m in jail, ”Bryan wrote. “But I have one now. His name is Hill Harper.
At the Martin Luther King Jr. vigil hosted virtually by the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity on Monday afternoon, Harper spoke about helping incarcerated people through economic justice.
The vigil opened with a performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by the Northwestern Community Ensemble. Spoken artist Timothy Mays then followed by reciting two of his poems. The first, “Free At Last”, was inspired by King and explores what it means to follow in his legacy. The second compared jazz, one of King’s passions, to his fight against oppression.
“All we want to do is break the chains,” Mays recited in his second poem. “All we want is to be free.”
Harper, author, activist and motivational speaker, is best known for his work in “CSI: NY” and the film “Concussion” with Will Smith. He said he first realized how much industry and money affects incarceration when he joined Project Innocence, an organization that works to exonerate people he claims have been wrongly convicted. through DNA testing and to reform the criminal justice system.
“You can’t have social justice without economic justice,” Harper said. “The wealth gap in this country is something we have to look at and manage. We have to see how this is completely linked to the situation of incarcerated people.
Referring to the destruction of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921, where a thriving community of black-owned businesses was looted and bombarded by a white mob, Harper said he envisioned a new Black Wall Street that cannot be demolished.
“Technology allows us to create our own virtual Black Wall Street,” Harper said.
Harper, who is currently working on creating a platform that would facilitate this ideal, has linked his work to the Black Lives Matter movement and King’s legacy. He hopes formerly incarcerated people can use the platform to find jobs.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the people with boots on the court,” Harper said. “But now, as we come out of this, we have to ask ourselves what is the next step in terms of impact and legacy. It’s good to have an impact, but if it doesn’t last, what difference does it make? “
Harper encouraged the virtual audience to find and lean into their lens just like King.
“We, as brothers and sisters, have to walk through our scorching sands,” Harper said.
*Thumbnail of the article courtesy of Northwestern University MLK Dream Week