When Gerald Perdue urges black teen-agers to rise above the drug dealing, gang violence and other dangers that plague the nation's cities, he speaks from experience. And his words carry a dose of crisp reality that has already captured audiences nationwide.
"The drugs, the money, the gold, the women," Perdue says, "will only last so long."
The 18-year-old Inglewood resident, his language laced with expressions from the tough streets of Long Beach where he grew up, has transformed himself from gangbanger to anti-gang activist. Once a drug dealer, he is now a spokesman for the benefits of staying in school. No longer a teen-age statistic heading for a life of despair, Perdue is heading for college and a future of which he is finally in control.
There are not many gang members who win speech contests, who are elected vice president of the student council, who serve on national education panels. Perdue, who says he has been jumped by rivals and shot at numerous times, is one.
Perdue said he became a gang member in 1988 when a group of his friends circled him in a Long Beach park and started beating him as part of his gang initiation. Within less than a year he had become an active drug dealer.
Perdue said he began protecting another dealer and later branched out on his own, selling marijuana and, later, cocaine and crack with a friend he knew only as Jay. The pair's network reached into San Diego, Portland and San Francisco and earned each about $5,000 a week, Perdue said.
His mother, Teresa Perdue, said she struggled with her son during his period on the street.
"The more I tried to force him to change, the more he resisted," she said. "I had to come to a reality where I had to let him understand for himself that that is not the way to go. . . . I never gave up. I constantly was on my knees praying."
Perdue vividly remembers the moment--April 27, 1989, at about 4:30 p.m.--when he turned his life around.
He and Jay knew rivals were after them. Both their cars had been shot up that day, Perdue said. They were nervously making their way through the neighborhood when his friend began questioning Perdue about why he was dealing drugs. Jay then brought up an unusual subject.
"Man, you really need to go back to school," Perdue recalled his friend saying.
The two parted, and less than a minute later, Perdue heard automatic gunfire. Running back, Perdue found Jay face down on a stairway with bullet holes covering the back of his head and neck, he said.
"I just stood there looking at him," Perdue said. "I said: 'They killed my homeboy. What am I going to do now?' First I thought about the money. Then I thought, 'It could have been me.' Then I thought, 'Maybe I should go back to school.' "
He did just that. Perdue said he gathered together the khakis and rags that used to be his uniform and dumped them in the trash. He bought new pants, trimmed his long hair and moved with his mother to Inglewood. At Hillcrest Continuation High School, Perdue was placed in a special program for at-risk youth sponsored by Cities in School Inc. and Burger King.
Perdue speaks emotionally about the rigors of street life but he is hesitant to name his former gang, so he does not alienate gang members in rival sets, or disclose details of his gang-related activities on the streets.
Principal Arthur C. Butler remembers the shy teen-ager who used to hang out by a fence and largely keep to himself. Nurturing by the Hillcrest staff, Butler said, brought out an inquisitive, gregarious youngster who loved to talk, who wanted to learn, who realized firsthand the futility of life on the street.
"Gerald Perdue says to us that there is hope," Butler said.
Instead of counting handfuls of drug money, Perdue is now an accountant trainee for the Los Angeles Kings at the Forum. He is also an orator with a message that cannot be learned in any book.
He won Inglewood's annual Martin Luther King Jr. speech contest in February with an examination of King's noted "I Have a Dream" speech. He spoke about the tough realities of the streets at an educational conference in Washington. He appeared on the "CBS Morning Program" as an example of a high school dropout who dropped back in.
"I've seen him make adults cry," Butler said. "When he gave his Martin Luther King speech, people were coming up with tears in their eyes. He has a knack for getting to the emotional nerve of people."
Perdue, who will enroll at Rust College in Mississippi after receiving his high school diploma next month, knows he has a powerful message and is confident that he can reach those headed for the life he once lived.
"I see myself as a role model for my black brothers and sisters," he said. "I always had morals and values, but when I got on the street I lost them. When I went back to school, the Gerald Perdue I knew came back--the Gerald my mother gave birth to, not Gerald the gangster."
Unfortunately, Perdue's message will not reach his former homeboys--and that's his main point.
"All the dudes I hung around with," he said, "are in jail or dead."