Tavis: Wes Moore is a former Army captain who served on active duty in Afghanistan. He was also a Rhodes Scholar and speaker at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. His “New York Times” best seller, “The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates,” is the new text. Wes, good to have you on the program.
Wes Moore: It’s great to be here, Tavis. Thanks so much.
Tavis: My pleasure to have you. This thing is burning them up, man. (Laughter) I know what it’s like to get your first book out, and I’ve done, what, 14 or 15 of these. But I know it must be pretty amazing, though, to have the first one just jump to the top of the list.
Moore: It’s humbling, because it means that people are actually getting the larger message of it and they’re seeing it’s about much more than just these two boys. It’s about all of us and all of our choices and the people we have in our lives who help make the choices, so it’s been very humbling.
Tavis: I can’t tell this story any better than you can, and I know you’ve been on a book tour so you’ve been doing this for a while now. (Laughter) So I’m going to lean back in my chair – this is going to be a real easy conversation. I’m going to lean back and just shut up and let you tell the story about “The Other Wes Moore,” and take your time. Just tell the story about this other Wes Moore.
Moore: Well, the way I first learned about the other Wes Moore was I was in South Africa studying abroad as a student at Johns Hopkins, and my mother and I are on the phone and she said, “I’ve got something crazy to tell you.” She said, “The cops are looking for a guy wanted in connection with the murder of a police sergeant, and they’re looking for Wes Moore.
Tavis: In Baltimore.
Moore: In Baltimore. It caught me because as I got back home I learned that we had so much more in common than just that name, that we were literally living in the same area. We both grew up with a single parent, with just our moms. We both had academic and disciplinary troubles growing up. The more I learned about him, the more I realized how much these similarities really haunted me.
So it came to the point that a few years after I first learned about him I ended up writing him a note, and a month later I get a letter back from Jessup Correctional Institution from Wes Moore, and that’s how the journey began.
Tavis: Tell me more about the murder.
Moore: So there were four guys who went into a jewelry store; two had guns and two had mallets. The two with guns got everybody on the ground, the two with mallets started going around the jewelry store and smashing jewelry cases. They got about $400,000 worth of jewelry, and then one of them yelled, “Let’s go,” and all four of the guys ran out of the store.
One of the people inside the store was an off-duty police sergeant who was a 13-year veteran of the police force, a three-time recipient of police officer of the year and a father of five who had triplets, and the reason he was working that day, moonlighting as a security guard, was because he was trying to make extra money for his family.
He ran outside to see if he could stop the four guys and didn’t realize that one of the vehicles that he was kneeling next to was one of the vehicles they were in, and he was shot three times and killed instantly.
Tavis: What role did Wes play in the –
Moore: Wes was convicted as actually one of the guys with the guns.
Tavis: With the guns, yeah. So you’re in South Africa, you hear about this. What makes you, given that the other Wes Moore did not regard the humanity of this officer enough to not kill him, obviously, what makes you then want to interrogate Wes’ humanity?
Moore: Well, it’s a fascinating question because it’s something I had to wrestle with as I was going through this process. One thing I knew from Wes was that there was a bigger truth to be understood in this story, and I thought that this could be something that could help with these type of tragedies from ever having to happen again.
I knew by learning from Wes, one thing I’ve discovered is that even our worst decisions don’t separate us from the circle of humanity, and I knew I could understand. If I could better understand the situation and why Wes’ fate was sealed long before February 7th of 2000, then maybe – maybe – that we could actually keep these things from actually happening again and actually create something that could contribute to society and help children make better decisions and help create a better destiny for all of us.
Tavis: Tell me about that first letter, what you said to him in the letter.
Moore: The first thing I said to him was I just ran off a list of questions, first introducing myself. I said, my name is Wes, here’s how I heard about you, and then I ran off a list of questions. I knew Wes had kids from the articles that I read, so I asked him does he ever see his kids. I knew his brother was the trigger man that day, so I asked him, “Do you ever see your brother in prison and how do you feel about him?”
That first letter I got back from him, the first thing he said was he first thanked me for writing him, because he said, “When you’re in prison you think that the whole world doesn’t even think you exist anymore.” Then he proceeded to run down his answers to all the questions that I asked him, questions about his family, questions about what life is like for him every day.
That one letter really turned into dozens of letters, and those dozens of letters turned into multiple visits and really laid the foundation from me. Now I’ve known Wes for around five years.
Tavis: Tell me more about the burgeoning relationship, when you finally get a chance to go meet him. Tell me about that first meeting, in fact – the first time you saw him face to face.
Moore: That first meeting was chilling. I’d spent time in maximum security facilities before because I work with children who are involved in the juvenile justice system, but any time you walk into one of those facilities, it grabs you, the sights and sounds and the smells.
But I remember first sitting across from the other Wes Moore, and the fascinating thing to me about Wes, and I learned it even from his first letter, was he’s not a dumb guy. Wes is a guy who has made some unforgiving decisions in his life, but at the same time, when you read his letters and you talk to Wes, this is a guy who actually has a pretty good sense of what’s going on out there in the world and actually has some pretty insightful things to say.
So it was after that first letter that I really started to understand that, and then sitting across from him, face to face with the other Wes Moore, was a feeling I’ll never forget.
Tavis: You all are how far apart in age?
Moore: About two years.
Tavis: Two years. So take me back to Wes’ life in Baltimore, to your life in Baltimore. Same name, literally a couple blocks apart from each other growing up. Have you been able to figure out, given the time you spent on this project, why he went this direction and why you went that direction?
Moore: It’s interesting, because that was really the question that I wanted to explore. The thing I realized, there was no one thing that really made the difference. But I tell you, there was a whole collection of different things, because raising children is complicated, and it’s very difficult, particularly for those who live in precarious neighborhoods.
The importance of education plays a huge role. The importance of family and support plays a huge role. The importance of mentors and role models plays a huge role. The importance of high expectations plays a big role.
I remember there was a conversation I had with Wes inside a prison where I asked him, I said, “Do you think that we’re products of our environments?” And he looked at me and he said, “Actually, I think we’re products of our expectations.” I thought that was a really important point, because he said, “If the expectation of you or the community that you grow up in is that you will graduate from high school, you will go on to college, you will become a good father and a husband or mother and wife, then that’s probably what you’ll do.
“And if the expectation is that you probably won’t finish, or the people in your community probably won’t finish, if the expectation is that you’ll probably be involved in the juvenile justice system or in the adult prison system for the remainder of your life, then kids have a funny way of proving you right on that, too.”
Tavis: Do I take from that, then, that your family or those around you had higher expectations of you than the folk around Wes had of him?
Moore: I think there really came a point, I think when we were kids you fundamentally had two kids who were both searching for help and two kids who were both searching for more, two kids that were getting in academic and disciplinary trouble both in school and also back in the neighborhoods.
Tavis: You and Wes both in trouble.
Moore: Both of us in trouble. Both of us in some pretty good trouble. But I think at some point you had one kid who got help, one kid who got that support, and one kid who didn’t. Then the world now bears witness to the final result.
So I think you definitely start seeing, particularly as we start getting a little older, you start seeing where the difference in the expectations of what we’re going to do with our lives and what type of lives would actually transpire, how they started to change, and you started to see how that then was internalized by both boys and you start seeing that split really become significant.
Tavis: There are two quotes that come to mind for me now, one from Malcolm X, who as you know once said that “Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” The other quote comes to mind, I think Booker T. Washington who said that without an education, we – Black folk, the Negro in America – “Without an education, we are twice defeated in life.” You know the other strike against us, of course; the color of our skin.
So I take both those quotes from Malcolm X and Booker T. Washington to heart, and yet I raise them because I want to ask this question, which is how you respond to people who look at your story, for as great a story as it is, but they look at it and say, “You see, education is the key. Education is the difference.” While education is terribly important, to your earlier point, there are a number of factors that sent you this way and sent him this way – education being one of them.
But how do you get folk not to use this text as a – you know where I’m going with this – as a rod to beat Negroes over the head and say, “See, all you’ve got to do is get a good education, and everything else goes away.”
Moore: And that’s not to take away from the importance of education.
Moore: However, there are a whole lot of factors that will also help determine what type of education that that young person is going to achieve. One thing I firmly believe is that kids are going to learn. The question is what are they learning and who’s teaching them.
So where education plays a huge role in the actual trajectory of young people – my grandfather used to say that education is like a skeleton key, where if you can get that skeleton key, if you can get that education, you can open up any door. I firmly believe that, but I also believe this – the people who you have in your lives who are helping to affect what type of education you receive and how that education is actually used and actually then translated to the type of life that you’ll lead becomes very important.
Because again, going back to the point I made about Wes, Wes is not a dumb guy. Wes is not a learned person, but he’s not a dumb guy. So the question is how exactly are we fostering that education amongst our young people to make them actually become productive members of society?
Tavis: You write a “New York Times” best seller and everybody’s talking about it, and you’re on “Oprah” and everywhere else, you get a lot of responses, I suspect, from thousands of people across the country who want to communicate with you because of the impact the book has had on them.
Amongst those thousands of folks you’ve heard from and communicated with, have you heard from the officer’s family?
Moore: Yes. Well, there’s some members of the officer’s family, to include the widow, who want nothing to do with the project, and I completely understand that and respect that. I saw the pain my mother went through when she became a widow instantaneously, so I completely respect that.
But there are some members of the officer’s family who have been very supportive and encouraging of this project, and have read the book and written me back and said how much they think it’s not only a tribute to Sergeant Prothero but also something that’s really useful to help people understand the ramifications for their decisions.
I’ve been very clear that an endorsement from a member of their family is the greatest endorsement I could ever receive.
Tavis: The other Wes Moore, raised by a single mother?
Tavis: You raised by a single mother.
Tavis: As you just mentioned, because your mother was at one point – became widowed – I know your mother well, love her to death. Hi, Joy.
Moore: Hey, Mom. (Laughter)
Tavis: Tell me about how your mother became – how she became a widow.
Moore: We were actually living down in Maryland and one day – my father was actually in radio, radio and television. He said he was having troubles with his throat, and he’d just finished working. He came home and that night he tried to get some sleep and wasn’t even able to take aspirin down.
The next day he went to the hospital and when he got to the hospital he was having trouble keeping his head up and my mother was trying to figure out what was going on. She was told that the reason he was having trouble keeping his head up was because he probably was having difficulty falling asleep. The reason was because he was having difficulty getting air.
He was suffering called acute epiglottitis, which is essentially the swelling of the epiglottis over the windpipe, and his body, five hours after he was released from the hospital, his body essentially suffocated itself and he died, in fact, right in front of all of us, died right in front of me when I was three and a half years old.
Tavis: So you’re three and a half and your mother – you have a sister.
Moore: I have one older sister and one younger sister.
Tavis: So how, then, did you end up not ending up like the other Wes Moore? You said earlier that there were a lot of influences, but tell me more about how you end up on the road to becoming a Rhodes Scholar? Because you’re both raised now by single mothers in Baltimore.
Moore: That’s right. I think also at that point, see – and after my father passed away we moved up to the Bronx to live with my grandparents, which was incredibly important because my grandparents – I love them to death. They had a small house up in the Bronx, where we all moved up to, but one thing I realized is as I got up there that’s when a lot of confusion and anger and hurt started to manifest itself in me, where I didn’t understand why we were now alone.
I knew my father went somewhere, but I didn’t understand where yet because I still wasn’t old enough to process sit.
As I started getting older and I started to understand, as I was going through my phases and my anger and my hurt, I began at some point to understand that I was part of something bigger. I began at some point to understand the whole idea of accountability and responsibility and leadership, and I think that was something that really birthed something in me, where I knew I wanted to be part of a larger equation in our society.
That’s what I think helped to drive me and push me to want to do more, and where those expectations of others really then manifested themselves to become expectations I held within myself. Then from there was able to kind of continue to move on and try to build a foundation for what I wanted my future to be.
Tavis: I know there are so many single mothers who are watching right now, Black, White and otherwise, who are going through it with their boys, hoping and praying that something’s going to happen to get this kid on the right track. Tell me about your mother and the role she played in your life.
Moore: My mother is extraordinary; she’s a superwoman, like so many other single mothers who are out there. My mother said something, used to say something all the time, and she still does and I still think it’s so true – that kids need to think that you care before they care what you think, and my mother always let us know that she cared about us, even when we were giving her the fits and even when – she saw things in me that I didn’t even see in myself at a certain point, but she always knew that despite my challenges and despite my troubles, that I was going to make it okay.
She always knew that she was going to be there for me, and that always meant something. Because even when I was wearing that mask, even when I was trying to be as difficult and as hard as I wanted to be, I knew that she was in my corner and that always helped me and really was a wind that continued to push me through my back.
Tavis: Because I’ve known you for a while through your mother, I’ve heard a lot of people talking about you as you have become more exposed because of the text. I keep hearing everybody I hear talk about you or read on the Internet, talk about you, everybody has plans for you.
Now that they know this Wes Moore, there are all these political plans and social plans, et cetera, et cetera, for Wes Moore. So what do you want to do when you grow up now?
Moore: (Laughs) I just want to keep on serving, Tavis, and I say – my father passed away when he was 34 years old, and I think one of the real lessons I learned from that is long-term plans are not the best use of our time. So I just want to do as much as I can while I can, because none of us are promised anything. I just want to make sure that public service doesn’t have to be an occupation, but it needs to be a way of life.
It needs to be something that we all do, and I’m hoping that this text can be something that can serve as a real public asset that people can use to understand why our decisions matter and what our potency is as people in helping to shape not only our own lives, but the lives of others.
Tavis: Very quickly, not too, too long ago you got married.
Tavis: I suspect you guys are going to make some babies one day.
Moore: Hoping, God willing.
Tavis: What’s the impact that this story has had on you, you think, when you become a father?
Moore: It’s a great question. I really think – I’m so excited to become a father. I’m so excited to be able to not just give birth but then also just give life to something else, and I think this text and going through this process has really helped me to understand what that means, what that job means, and why it is so important to not only be involved and be engaged, but then also try to create a larger society and a better environment for your child to grow up in.
Tavis: His name is Wes Moore. His book is called, “The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates.” It’s a book I highly recommend. In terms of full disclosure, which we must do here on public television, I wrote the call to action at the back of this book. (Laughter) Now you know why I love this book so much. Wes, good to have you on the program.
Moore: God bless you, Tavis, thank you.
Tavis: Glad to have you.