Young African-Americans are at risk. They are not only dying physically, but also mentally. They apparently feel that there is no hope for their future. We have to address this dismal state immediately if we are going to survive as a people.

Recently, I addressed a group of young people at a high school. The teachers had no control over them when they entered the auditorium. It was a state of havoc, to say the least.

It was called a “Big Brother Program.” I was introduced and then took off my coat knowing I had my work cut out for me. I knew that if I didn’t get their attention in a few moments, it was all over. I always carry my slave shackles with me to prove a point.

To set the scene, I asked them if they could imagine the ceiling being lowered just above their heads. I explained that this was the size of the space at the bottom of a slave ship and that their seating arrangements were similar to such conditions: body-to-body.

I described how their forefathers and mothers were transported in slave ships and how they withstood extreme conditions. I told them to imagine being cramped in complete darkness, lying in their waste–the unbearable odor–sleeping, eating and dying in the same position for up to eight weeks on the ocean. At least one half of the slaves became blind from a condition known as ophthalmia, which was caused by contamination of the eyes by human waste. The slaves who became blind were thrown overboard as feed for the sharks following the ships.

As I continued my talk, I told them that 100 million slaves were lost at sea during this period. Finally, I suggested to the students–who were quieted down by now–that if their ancestors survived in 3.5 feet of space under these deplorable conditions, why couldn’t they survive in a world where there were free schools, libraries and homes to which they could return with parents who care?

At that point, you could hear a pin drop in the auditorium. I had caught their imagination and illustrated the crisis that they were in.

I then took the shackles which had been removed from our ankles and wrists and told them that the shackles have now been placed on our brains. To demonstrate this, I placed the shackles across my head and continued to talk. There was no laughter from the audience. The students knew that we were now in a serious situation.

If we are going to survive, I feel that the only way it will happen will be for us to encourage the youth who have not given up to serve those youth who have, one-on-one.

In the past, I was meeting with a small group of senior citizens around the campfire–just as our forefathers did when they were planning an escape from the madness of slavery. Our plan was this: We were writing to all of the presidents of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) asking for a general meeting. We hoped to present to them a plan called “Students for Students.”

We suggested that when a young person is admitted to an HBCU, he be responsible for mentoring a student entering high school for a four-year period. This mentoring would be worth 20 credits toward his degree and would be mandatory. In order to graduate with his degree, he would have to present that student at his graduation. Although it may seem to be a simple solution, it would take a great deal of commitment.

Can you imagine the thousands of African-American high school graduates who would then be ready for college? New schools and money will not save us. Only dedication, commitment and the spirit of God will make a difference.

If Moses could open the waters of hope and lead his people into the Promised Land, I am sure that our HBCU presidents can open the waters of despair and lead our students into a new millennium.