Petri Hawkins Byrd has an urgent message for our nation’s African-American community. Television audiences know him affectionately as Byrd on the Emmy Award winning television show “Judge Judy.” However, Byrd is a man on a mission, intent on leveraging his celebrity and determined to do whatever it takes to make a positive difference in America’s Black communities.
Byrd serves as the national chairman of the O.K. Program, whose mission is mentoring African-American youth. The O.K. Program, which stands for Our Kids, distinguishes itself from other Black youth mentoring organizations by the fact that it is coordinated by police officers. When police officers become mentors for at-risk youth, monitor their behavior, offer them guidance and become advocates for the youth, Byrd believes good things will happen to stem the tide of bad choices, drugs, violence and despair that are epidemic in our communities.
Today, 72 percent of all African-American families live in a single-parent household, along with a 50 percent high school dropout rate for African-American males and an ever-increasing Black population in our nation’s prisons. There is indeed a significant cause for concern.
This plight of the African-America family can be attributed in large part to the absence of the father in the home. This is a story that Byrd himself knows all too well.
Growing up in the tough Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, Byrd and his siblings faced many of the same challenges of today’s youth. “My father was an intravenous drug user and a drug dealer, who spent most of his time locked up, in prison or in rehab,” states Byrd. For all practical purposes, Byrd grew up on welfare, in a single-parent household.
On occasions when his father was home, he offered young Byrd counsel on life; this was, of course, between the addict’s “junkie nod” and shooting up in the bathroom. Although his father possessed a brilliant mind, the way he chose to live his life was troubling. “My father was the antithesis of everything I believed in, and everything I looked up to and respected,” says Byrd.
As a young boy, Byrd experienced a life-changing moment. One night he, his siblings and his mother all huddled around their 19-inch black-and-white television to watch WOR TV’s “Million Dollar Movie.” “The movie was ‘The Miracle Worker,’ with Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft,” says Byrd. “I remember all of us watching the movie together, and we were completely riveted to the screen. When the movie ended, we all cried–together.”
Television became a much needed escape from the harsh realities of everyday life. “I have an encyclopedic knowledge of television,” Byrd offers. It was television that inspired him to cultivate his own talents for telling jokes, impersonations of famous people and singing.
But more than this, television provided him a strong sense of Black pride. Petri states, “When Diahann Carroll came on TV as Julia, she was a proud and unapologetic Black woman who was a single parent, and I could totally relate. Flip Wilson had the highest rated TV show for two years. He not only had Black guests on his show, but white guests, too. Flip produced his own show with his own production company. The pride you felt from being able to watch Black people emerge from the darkness and into the light in Hollywood. Being able to look upon these figures and to just be able to see these images with pride, it made the hard times we were living a little bit easier to take.”
It was television that allowed him to dream of a life outside of his neighborhood. “I knew that I could aspire to be that, one of them, or to be a judge, a doctor or a firefighter. There is not anything that is not open to me,” says Byrd.
In school, pride for his community was further strengthened by the efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Thurgood Marshall to amend “America’s contract,” and the writings of Nikki Giovanni and Amiri Baraka. Byrd continued his education, becoming the first in his family to graduate from college.
Byrd has a powerful vision for his beloved community. As the national chairman of the O.K. Program, he is currently working with Tommy Davidson to produce a documentary film about the O.K. Program. For more information, please visit www.okprogram.org.