After actor and activist Hill Harper published his first book, “Letters to a Young Brother,” he discovered that juvenile court judges had been assigning his work for book reports. These reports caused him to receive letters from incarcerated young Black men, including one from a 16-year-old named Bryan.

“Like you said in your book, many 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’s Hill Harper.”

In the Martin Luther King Jr. Day vigil hosted virtually by the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity on Monday afternoon, Harper spoke about helping incarcerated individuals through economic justice.

The vigil opened with a performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by the Northwestern Community Ensemble. Spoken word 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 music, one of King’s passions, to his fight against oppression.

“All we want to do is break the chains off,” Mays recited in his second poem. “All we want to do is be free.”

Harper, an author, activist and motivational speaker, is best recognized 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 the Innocence Project, an organization that works to exonerate individuals who it claims have been wrongly convicted through DNA testing and 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 need to look at and deal with. We need to see how it’s completely linked to the situation of incarcerated people.”

Referencing the destruction of the Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921 where a  flourishing community of Black-owned businesses was looted and bombed by a white mob, Harper said that he envisions a new Black Wall Street that can not be torn down.

“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, connected his work to the Black Lives Matter Movement and legacy of King. He hopes that formerly incarcerated individuals will be able to use the platform to find employment.

“I couldn’t be more proud of folks with boots on the ground,” Harper said. “But now, as we come out of that, we have to ask ourselves what’s next for impact and legacy. Having impact is great, but if it doesn’t last, what difference does it make?”

Harper encouraged the virtual audience to find their purpose and lean into it just like King.

“We, as brothers and sisters, have to cross our burning sands,” Harper said.

*Article Thumbnail courtesy of Northwestern University MLK Dream Week