The Big 10 with Jeff D'Alessio: Black history heroes, Part 2

The Big 10 with Jeff D'Alessio: Black history heroes, Part 2

In Part 2 of our Black History Month-inspired miniseries, we asked 23 familiar faces to think back to their childhood days and tell us about the African-American figure they found most inspiring or intriguing.

KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR

6-time NBA champ, 6-time league MVP, 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree

"The year I was born, 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball by starting at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

"My mother's best friend, who used to babysit me sometimes, loved baseball and took me to games when I was still in elementary school. When I was eight, I got in trouble with my mom because I stayed up late to listen to a game Jackie was playing in what was in an earlier time zone.

"Later, before I knew anything about John Wooden, I was interested in attending UCLA because Jackie had gone there. When I was a high school senior, Jackie even wrote me a letter encouraging me to go to UCLA.

"But he meant a lot more to me than just being an exceptional athlete. I admired his courage in enduring the death threats and taunts that came with being a black man smashing the walls of segregation that the country had erected to keep African-Americans from participating in the American Dream.

"Jackie made us all believe that the dream was ours, too. He was an elite athlete and exceptional leader who used his popularity to make the path easier for all people of color."

JACKIE JOYNER-KERSEE

6 Olympic medals put East St. Louis native on short list for greatest female athlete of all-time

"When I was younger, the Wilma Rudolph story was inspiring to me.

"She was born with a debilitating disease, polio, and went on to conquer the world in a sport I love so dearly, track and field. She became the first woman to win three Olympic gold medals, in the 1960 Tokyo Games. Amazing.

"Wilma dealt with many more obstacles that could have given her reason to be bitter but she had an inner strength that couldn't be broken.

"I had the opportunity to meet her in the early '80s and we established a friendship that grew until the day she was called home. She was my source of strength and a reminder to not let situations or people get the best of you. Wilma did everything with a smile and that's exactly how I live my life, regardless how tough it may get at times.

"She had a never-give-up attitude. That's the Wilma Rudolph I knew and loved."

STEVE HARVEY

6 Emmys, 381 'Family Feud' episodes, endless laughs

"Hands down, no question, it was Martin Luther King Jr. because I saw my mother and father, who were much older than me, have so much pride in feeling as though the rights for African-Americans were beginning to change. They participated in a lot of stuff when it came through Cleveland.

"At the same time, his assassination had a deeply profound effect on me because it was the first time I ever saw my mother and my father crying together. I'd only seen my father cry one time and that was when his mother died. I'd seen my mother cry many times but had never seen them cry together. That affected me deeply for a long time throughout my life.

"I try to live by a lot of his principles on how to solve problems, but growing up where I lived, that wasn't always easy. I grew up in a violent world so it was what it was, but Martin Luther King, Jr. had that effect on me.

"To this day, his methods of non-violence and actually talking to the enemy is very much a part of what I do all the time. I sit down with a lot of people who could be considered my enemy to try to find resolution.

"I learned that from Martin Luther King Jr."

LEON DASH

UI professor, National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Famer, Prize-winning reporter/author

"I grew up in Harlem from 1947 to 1959. Jackie Robinson was one of my earliest heroes.

"By the time I was 11 in 1955, I had come to realize how segregated America is and I felt his being brought onto the Brooklyn Dodgers team when I was three was a significant milestone. It helped that was he an audacious player, stealing home whenever he saw an opportunity.

"I became a diehard Brooklyn Dodgers fan, win or lose. When the team moved to Los Angeles in the fall of 1957, I was heartbroken. I lost all interest in Major League Baseball and never developed an interest in following any other professional sports.

"Once spurned, never to trust again. I remained an admirer of Jackie Robinson, however, and followed his political and public service career whenever I came across something about him."

CHANDRA WILSON

4-time Best Supporting Actress Emmy nominee has played Dr. Miranda Bailey on 'Grey's Anatomy' since 2005

"I was about 7 years old or so when the touring company of 'West Side Story' came to Houston. Debbie Allen was playing Anita and my mother made sure we had tickets.

"She told me all about Debbie being from Houston, that she was a fabulous dancer, that she was the first black ballerina at Houston Ballet, and that she was someone I needed to watch.

"We watched her career together — from 'Good Times' to 'Fame' the movie to 'Fame' the TV series. And I continued to look to this triple threat performer and staple in this industry as an example of excellence in the arts and someone who never disappoints her audience."

KEVIN EUBANKS

Leader of the 'Tonight Show' band, 1995-2010

"I was in fifth grade. Dad was driving us home after my school glee club show.

"All of a sudden, Dad pulled over and turned up the radio. Martin Luther King had been shot.

"From that day on, I wanted to know about his life and how he influenced others to encourage righteousness. I'll never forget that ride home."

BILL WHITAKER

Second African-American '60 Minutes' correspondent, following the late Ed Bradley

"My parents were politically active news junkies. They would watch the U.S. political conventions gavel to gavel — not must-see TV for a youngster.

"But when Fannie Lou Hamer, a former sharecropper, stood before the 1964 Democratic Convention to argue that the all-white Mississippi delegation had to be integrated, the whole country was riveted. Describing how she and other black Mississippians were brutally beaten simply for seeking their constitutional right to vote, she was eloquent, courageous and righteous.

"Fannie Lou Hamer left an indelible impression on me and the American political process."

LAUREN UNDERWOOD

Newly elected U.S. representative from Chicagoland is, at 32, youngest black woman ever to serve in Congress

"Shirley Chisholm was the first African American woman in history to serve in Congress, and throughout her career had a huge presence and a strong voice as she knocked down barriers for women of color.

"When she ran for president in the 1970s, she proclaimed she was 'unbought and unbossed' — a motto that perfectly reflected her mission to work for the people, and one that I keep at the front of my mind as I represent the people of the 14th District of Illinois."

DEBORAH ROBERTS

Emmy-winning ABC News correspondent

"Rosa Parks grabbed my imagination because she was a soft-spoken southern woman who resembled my mother.

"I grew up in southern Georgia and my parents experienced the Jim Crow south. I was intrigued when I read about this diminutive woman who refused to give up her seat on the bus in a nod to segregation.

"I always heard it was because she was tired after a long day of work. Years later, I had a rare opportunity to interview Mrs. Parks and she clarified that she was actually tired of segregation.

"Her defiance helped change my world. And for that, I'm forever grateful."

KELLITA SMITH

4-time NAACP Image Award nominee slayed zombies on SyFy's 'Z Nation,' played the title character's wife on 'The Bernie Mac Show'

"I was fortunate enough to go to the institution founded by the Black Panther party (the Oakland Community Learning Center), and I was selected as a child narrator for a television documentary that highlighted Huey P. Newton and the party through the eyes of a child.

"I have a debt of gratitude for the women who were a part of the Black Panther party — Ericka Huggins, Elaine Brown and others — for being an important piece of my unfolding development. I find myself emotionally and conscientiously invested in their legacy because I am a product of their deeds, commitment, love, strength, fight, intellect, pride and a voice to me and to our culture in helping us move forward in society."

GUS JOHNSON

Fox, BTN play-by-play man

"My father was a big boxing fan and we spent a lot of time watching fights when I was growing up. Muhammad Ali, along with Howard Cosell, was front and center.

"My dad was from Louisville so he had a special love for Ali. He'd tell me stories about the champ growing up in his neighborhood. He would encourage me to read about his journey — from a bullied schoolboy to the Rome Olympics, Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and Vietnam.

"During that time, I not only had a chance to learn about an iconic African-American but I also had a chance to spend time with my father. Some of the best days of my life."

SUNDIATA CHA-JUA

UI professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois and is a member of the, North End Breakfast Club member

"I read 'The Last Year of Malcolm X: The Evolution of a Revolutionary,' 'The Autobiography of Malcolm,' and 'Malcolm X Speaks' before my sophomore year. I was impressed with his courage, commitment, speaking ability and capacity to change.

"The first assignment in my sophomore English class was to write a three-page paper on 'a great man.' Naturally, I wrote my paper on Malcolm X. I received an 'F.'

"When I questioned my grade, the teacher addressed the class. She said I did not follow the assignment because 'Malcolm X was not a great man.' She then tore my paper in two.

"She allowed me to redo the assignment. Inspired by Malcolm X, I wrote my on H. Rap Brown and received another 'F.'"

ARTHEL NEVILLE

Anchor, Fox News Channel’s ‘Americas News HQ’

"My role model growing up lived with us — my mother, Doris Neville.

"My mother was the first African-American woman who I witnessed exhibit, strength, tenacity, commitment, work ethic and compassion. She encompassed all of these attributes and carried them out with style, grace, class and love; and she somehow managed to throw in a healthy dose of humor.

"I'm fortunate to have had such an example to emulate. I'm blessed that my mother is still alive and living a loving, vivacious life."

BYRON PITTS

2002's National Association of Black Journalists Journalist of the Year now ABC's chief national correspondent and 'Nightline' co-anchor

"No single person inspired my dream to be a journalist more than the late historian Lerone Bennett Jr. I read his book 'Before The Mayflower' my freshman year in college.

"A slow reader all of my childhood, it was only the second book I'd ever read cover to cover for pleasure. The factual details and poetic style brought history to life. I wanted to write like him.

"Hope to one day move people the way he stirred my spirit. An example from his book in reference to slave ships: 'Few ships, before or since, have unloaded a more momentous cargo.'

"I met him years later in the early days of my career. I had the chance to interview him. He was brilliant. Elegant. Kind.

"I was terrible. Nervous in his presence."

AISHA HINDS

You know her from: '9-1-1' (Fox), 'True Blood' (HBO), 'NCIS: LA' (CBS), 'Under the Dome' (ABC)

"My introduction to the medium of cinema, stage and television all came through a prominent figure with a potent sense of purpose that transcended and challenged any level of comfort they found living in the world.

"I found myself deeply endeared to these persons and wanted to savor as much knowledge as I could find about them.

"I learned of Whoopi Goldberg from her one-woman show that aired on television, and Mahatma Ghandi through the biopic film, starring Ben Kingsley, as Ghandi.

"Madiba, the late Nelson Mandela, was a figure that intrigued me by way of a play I saw on Broadway called 'Sarafina.' The story illuminated the strife and struggle of youth dealing with the impact of apartheid in South Africa.

"As a young person in America, I watched in great wonder and awe at the tenacity, courage, strength and determination of these young people representing a country in turmoil and wondered where is their leader? I quickly investigated and discovered the great Nelson Mandela, and soaked my senses in the many tales of his sacrifices and service aimed at liberating a people held captive by corruption, racism and cultural perversion and oppression-prior, during and after being imprisoned for 27 years.

"The more I sought knowledge, the louder I heard the conversations and cries to end apartheid in South Africa all around me, from neighboring voices in America. I subconsciously looked to him and the outcome of this epidemic as a hint of hope for what was possible in America, as we battled with the fallout of slavery, racism, segregation, mass incarceration and more.

"His story deeply inspires me to this day and I continue to hold hope for continued progress, healing and harmony."

SIMONE BILES

At 2016 Rio Games, set American record for most gold medals in women's gymnastics in a single Olympics

"As a kid, we researched and learned about Martin Luther King Jr. in school. Dr. King combatted racial inequality through non-violence but was seen by many as radical and a threat.

"I was inspired by Dr. King's story because he was instrumental in making changes and fighting for what he believed in."

JASON HEYWARD

Cubs outfielder

"Derek Jeter and Ken Griffey Jr. were the African-American baseball players I loved watching the most growing up.

"Derek was the captain of the Yankees but it felt like the captain of baseball. The way he dedicated his life to being the face of his franchise was inspiring. He took his dream and added responsibility and accountability for himself and those around him.

"Ken Griffey Jr. made baseball look like a video game. He loved to play the game — loved hitting, loved defense, loved running the bases.

"He had swag. He smiled, even though he was competing. He came into Major League Baseball at 18 years old. He hit back-to-back home runs with his dad. His career and life story seemed like it was made up.

"I've been fortunate to meet both players and they made an impact on me in person, as well."

KIMBERLA LAWSON ROBY

Best-selling Rockford native won 2013 NAACP Image Award for her novel, 'The Reverend's Wife'

"Growing up, my parents and grandparents talked about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. regularly, making sure I knew who he was and that I knew all that he'd done for African-Americans everywhere.

"So even though he gave his 'I Have A Dream' speech two years before I was born and he passed away one month before I turned three years old, I grew up admiring him and feeling so truly thankful for the sacrifices he made for so many.

"Even today, I will sometimes listen to Dr. King's 'I Have a Dream' speech online, and while I am certainly brought to tears by his entire speech, it is these words that make me smile and shed tears all at once: 'I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.'

"I love that quote, because this is exactly what I have always wanted and continue to want for myself and for all people of color. Dr. King's dream will always resonate with me, motivate me and inspire me, and I am forever grateful to him."

HAROLD REYNOLDS

3-time Gold Glove second baseman and MLB Network analyst won baseball's Roberto Clemente Award for off-field contributions

"I'm the youngest of eight kids so my brothers and sister made sure I knew all the great icons that came before me.

"They taught me about Hank Aaron chasing Babe Ruth and the threats that came with it. They taught me about Tommy Smith and John Carlos and why they raised their fist with black gloves. They taught me about Ali and why he was not only the greatest in the ring but more importantly out of the ring.

"That's just the athletes. I could go on about Dr. King and all the civil rights leaders — I was real blessed to have siblings who knew their history.

"But when it came to sports, Willie Mays was my guy. I loved Willie Mays. The basket catch, the swing and the ease in which he played. I have since become friends with Willie and he has never let down the little black kid who used to tell all his friends he was going to be the next Willie Mays."

JOHN CARLOS

1968 Olympic bronze medalist gained notoriety for Black Power salute on medal stand

"As a young child, I was inspired by Jackie Robinson's life story. As a young black man breaking into baseball, he was berated by many white fans as well as many of his white teammates.

"It moved me to no end, realizing what he had to endure the open the gate for what you see in professional sports today, particularly baseball.

"I was also inspired by Joe Louis, Paul Robeson, Jack Johnson, Althea Gibson and many other blacks who led the way and inspired me to be who I am today.

"But above all, the greatest inspiration I had in my life came for my mother and my father. My dad taught me what it meant to be a man."

KHALIA BRASWELL

No. 90 on The Root's list of the 100 most influential African-Americans between the ages of 25-45, she founded a non-profit to inspire more black and Latino girls to get into technology

"I'd have to say Janice Bryant Howroyd. While I didn't learn about her until my senior year of high school, her story literally brought me to tears. I was so inspired.

"She was born in a smalltown called Tarboro, North Carolina, which is next to where I was born, in Rocky Mount, and went on to build a billion dollar business — The Act1 Group.

"I was introduced to her through the BET Honors program that comes on every year and I still have the journal (entry) I wrote after watching, where I talked about how inspired I was."

DAVE ROBERTS

Los Angeles Dodgers' first minority manager

"Jackie Robinson and Magic Johnson were the two African-American men who inspired me as a youth.

"I heard stories from my late father about how Jackie had the weight of the world on his shoulders but could focus on competing at a high level while putting on a show every time he put on that Dodgers uniform.

"He was the epitome of grit. He knew the price he was going to have to pay to pave the way for the rest of us.

"The way Magic orchestrated a show on the basketball court was also special. I patterned my life around his abilities on the basketball court.

"His smile was infectious and always made the fans feel connected to him. He was known for his ability to distribute the ball and include his teammates.

"These are traits and skills that I still carry with me each day."

KARIMAH WESTBROOK

Chicago native's movie credits include 'The Rum Diary,' 'Suburbicon,' 'American Violet'

"When I was a kid, I found Harriet Tubman's story fascinating because she was a woman who, in the face of hatred and slavery, was fearless in her pursuit of freedom — for not only herself but for others.

"The fact that Harriet escaped slavery and made several trips to help rescued others was very inspiring."

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