The Obama campaign office in Hampton, Va., started buzzing the moment Hill Harper walked into the door. The cherub-faced actor and now political-activist worked the small storefront office on a recent Saturday, shaking every hand. He wore jeans and a t-shirt. As a semicircle formed around him, he pressed his palms together, prayer style, and thanked everyone for working to help make his friend, Barack Obama, the country's first African-American president.
"We're past the point of asking for permission," the "CSI:NY" star told the group of campaign workers, making eye contact with everyone in the circle. "Be your own campaign manager. Recruit volunteers. Aggressively. Talk to every single person you run into, at the gas station, at the mall, at the 7-Eleven, at the grocery store."
This has been Harper's life for the past several months—touching Obama volunteers on their shoulders; talking up his old friend, traveling to colleges, churches and rallies in states crucial to the election. Harper is one of a committed group of socially-engaged celebrities, including actress Kerry Washington and singer John Legend, who have been working overtime on the Obama campaign.
While Harper is one of a legion of celebrity Obamaites, his connection to the Democratic nominee is personal and long-standing. The two met at Harvard Law School back in 1988. Still, the actor said the connection extends beyond alumni ties. The two share a similar post-civil rights generation experience, he said, that has informed their views, their commitment and their determination to defy barriers and stereotypes.
"When we grew up, we weren't bombarded with images that said you're less than if you don't have this, so we were able to feel that we had self-worth and self-esteem and confidence," Harper explained in an interview with The Root. "And we also weren't bombarded with images of dogs and fire hoses. So we grew up in this slice of time that was before this bombardment of branding fear and after racist segregation."
Harper is deeply involved in the Obama campaign, serving on the National Finance Committee and working on voter registration. But the presidential campaign is not Harper's only project for social change. Like Obama, and some of the other stars involved in the campaign, Harper comes with academic credentials and his own social agenda. He has an undergraduate degree from Brown University and law and master's degrees from Harvard. He has written two books aimed at boosting the self-esteem of young African Americans, the award-winning Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny (Gotham Books, 2006) and, more recently, Letters to a Young Sister: DeFINE Your Destiny (Gotham Books, 2008).
In between campaign stops, he is making appearances on his "Empower Me Tour," a collaboration between his foundation, UNCF-the United Negro College Fund and the Wachovia Foundation, to improve financial confidence among college students.
Harper says his sense of purpose was shaped by multiple male role models throughout his life. He was born in Iowa City, but his parents—his mother, an anesthesiologist, and his father, a psychiatrist—divorced when he was 5, and he moved to California's Bay Area. While his father, the late Henry Harper, raised him, he also spent long visits with his grandfathers—Harry Harper, a doctor in Fort Madison, Iowa, and Harold Hill, a pharmacist in Seneca, S.C., for whom he is named.
In high school, Harper was all-state in football and thought he would go pro. But a roommate at Brown University planted a bug in his ear about law school. After winning a Sloan Fellowship, Harper enrolled in the dual-degree program at Harvard. The first day of classes, he was playing basketball in the gym, when he was joined by another African American, a man about 4.5 inches taller than his 5-foot-9. His name was Barack Obama.
Obama became busy as president of the Harvard Law Review, and Harper made frequent runs to New York for acting auditions. Their friendship evolved on the basketball court. One of the most memorable games they played was one that Harper organized at the nearby Cedar Junction at Walpole maximum-security prison. Inside, they were shown sniper holes and told to move to the corners if trouble erupted.
Obama was one of the best players, with a steady and reliable shot. "He made the mistake of asking the guy who was guarding him, 'What are you in for?'" recalled Harper, chuckling. "The brother said double murder, and Barack didn't take another shot. That just goes to show you his good judgment. Even then."
The actor, a lifelong Democrat, believes Obama would bring refreshing, new people to Washington. He has been campaigning for his old friend since he announced his Senate bid in 2003, and Harper said he is committing to doing what he can through the November election and beyond.
The impact of having not just stars, but stars like Harper, who themselves reflect the kind of change and outlook that the candidate symbolizes to many of his supporters, has been powerful, according to Rashad Drakeford, who directs outreach for Students for Obama at historically black colleges and universities. "It's a good feeling to know that there are a lot of people who have a large influence on a vast population who understand they have a responsibility," said Drakeford, 21, a political science major at Hampton University from Queens, N.Y.
Harper's main goal now is ensuring that his growing influence translates into votes on Nov. 4.
Melanie Eversley, a journalist based in Washington, D.C., has covered politics and civil rights for many years.