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'CSI' star to black youth: Do all things well
"Today, the civil rights struggle is different," said the star of the CBS-TV show "CSI: NY." "Today, our struggle is not so much how society views us; it's how we view ourselves. We're in crisis mode right now."
Hill Harper, 41, was the keynote speaker before an enthusiastic crowd of about 500 gathered along Auburn Avenue for the day's many festivities commemorating the birth of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Harper's hour-long speech focused on the need for African-American youth to dare to defy prevailing societal stereotypes about them — particularly those assigning priority to chic athletics and the entertainment industries, instead of academics, as a means of achieving self-worth.
"You're more limited if all you can do is play ball," Harper said. "What about being able to play ball and get A's?"
His message resonated with young and old in the audience.
"I felt like I was being taught something," said 7-year-old Atlanta resident Kennedy Howery, who with his mother braved the day's snowy conditions to hear Harper.
Few people are perhaps more qualified to speak on the matter than Harper. A college football player who graduated magna cum laude in 1988 from Brown University, Harper went on to attend Harvard, where he picked up a juris doctorate (cum laude) and a master's degree in public administration.
His 2006 novel, "Letters to a Young Brother," has been on the New York Times best-seller list. He has another novel coming out later this year.
Harper, who also has appeared in such movies as Spike Lee's "He Got Game" and "Get on the Bus," didn't lay all the blame for the crisis on today's African-American youth. He also implored parents to give their children better examples to emulate.
He likened the current situation to the two homes he owns in New York and Los Angeles. The residences, he said, are similar in size and their overall blueprints, but different in the make-up of their foundations.
The home in New York has a brick foundation, better suited for the harsher weather of the Northeast, while his West Coast home has a wood foundation more suited for the frequent earthquakes of that area.
His point? "Choices we make are based on environmental decisions."
He warned that overcoming inherent obstacles, such as family members who kept them down, wouldn't always be easy. He cited his own brother's personal issues as something he had to deal with on his rise to stardom.
But anything is possible with education, Harper said.
That's just what teacher Allison Gay wanted to hear and why she thought it was important to bring to Saturday's event four of her students from the Intercontinental Community School in Stone Mountain.
"We wanted to expose them to the legacy of Dr. King and how it can relate to their country, as well as America," she said.
Harper selected the four students as scholarship recipients from his Los Angeles-based Manifest Your Destiny Foundation.
Harper said he hopes his message will help facilitate change among today's African-American youth.
"You don't have to choose," he said. "You can do all things well."