Projected photographs of Martin Luther King Jr. set the tone for the more than 500 people who filled the seats of the Marshall Center Ballroom on Wednesday night.
As the lights dimmed and Hill Harper took the stage, clips of his acting roles in “the Sopranos,” “CSI: NY” and “City of Angels” replaced the photos and played onto the screen.
He took off his coat and walked among the audience. Even though he was from Hollywood and went to Harvard, he said, he was just like everyone else.
His goal is to help Americans do better and help them make as much of an impact as he has, he said.
The political activist and author said Americans are capable of doing better for themselves, their country and their world – they just don’t know their own strength.
Downtrodden people often fall into the trap of learned helplessness, paralyzed by fear and pessimism over their future potential, he said.
Harper offered no quick solution to solving anyone’s problems, only inspiration. A person must have the spirit to create his or her own solutions, he said.
“We hear a mantra about how we have no power over our life,” he said. “We need to make tough choices to get to where we want to go.”
The courage to think of innovative solutions and quit unproductive routines is the path to change, Harper said, though he warned the path is not safe or free of obstacles.
“The past does not matter, all I care about is what are we going to next,” he said. “If you are not seeking out failure, then you are not living big enough.”
Innovation and originality is built on the foundation of mistakes, he said. A successful person is often more familiar with failure than those who remain unproductive.
Furthermore, he said, members of society are deeply interdependent.
If one strives to better oneself, society should be supportive – one human’s success is humanity’s gain.
“All of us must decide to step up,” he said. “Passion, reason and courage are the path to a great American society.”
And since every person is connected to one another, Harper said, civilization cannot afford to ignore those at the bottom.
Though education of the uncultivated and rehabilitation of the broken is a challenging and expensive prospect, we will all benefit in the long term, he said. The U.S. has the highest incarnation rate in the world, a costly expense that could go toward funding public education and thus is a lucrative future.
“I am targeting young people who are falling through the cracks,” he said. “If you have a dream, if you have a goal, I want you to manifest your destiny.”
A video showed Harper encouraging disadvantaged youths to seize opportunity where they thought there was none. He said he hopes to influence more impoverished black youth to apply to colleges.
While success in education leads to success in society, Harper said the failures of education lead into today’s “mass” incarceration rates in the U.S.
Imprisonment is a lazy answer to complicated sociological issues that fails to be fully addressed, he said.
Despite the government’s failings, he said Americans share blame for not taking action. Americans are able to elect their leaders, but are often unappreciative of how great of a power that is, he said.
It’s easy to sit in the back and be cynical, he said. To stand up and take action takes courage.
“I am not upset with the system, I am upset with us for allowing the system to be unjust,” he said. “We are born on a planet with problems. We are all put here to solve them.”
Jeremy Lomax, a sophomore majoring in biology and director for the USF’s Black Heritage Month committee, said he thought the lecture raises hope and ambition for the future.
“I see a lot of good ideas being brought up, especially in the college atmosphere,” he said. “If everyone takes the time and effort to follow through, we will see a lot of change. I feel going above and beyond what is normalcy would put any of us closer to some our historic figures like MLK.”