The kids at Compton YouthBuild can be a tough audience. Many come from broken homes, flunked out of multiple schools, even spent time in jail.
By the last day of Black History Month, some at the alternative school — which looks boarded shut from Compton Boulevard — had gotten their fill of talk about hope and perseverance.
On this late Friday afternoon, though, a tall young man strode into their big multipurpose room and flashed a flawless smile. He looked a bit like the rapper Drake. Or so said a girl near the front, giggling.
When the visitor began, "How many people here are familiar with Nickerson Gardens?" some of the students stopped mugging and poking one another. They not only knew the housing project where their guest came up, they knew other young men not unlike him whose mothers struggled with addiction, who had children while still nearly children themselves, who had let violence win them over.
But his story didn't end like most. He found a way to keep learning while behind bars, went to college, then got a job overseeing big-ticket construction projects. He told the students of knowing Kendrick Lamar from back in the day and how he recently visited the hip-hop star backstage at one of his shows. Hearing that, one boy in the audience whistled in admiration and exclaimed: "Damn!"
Not only had their visitor played fate for a fool, he had a name that seemed plucked straight from a Spike Lee drama: Prophet. Prophet Walker.
"A lot of people who came from the 'hood don't do anything. But he came back," student Jonathan Chase Butler said after Walker's talk. "He is trying to speak to us and inspire us, and I see I can actually push forward and keep going. That is huge."
Now Walker, just 26, is trying to build on his unlikely story. With no experience in politics or government, he's running for the California Assembly, hoping to represent a district that stretches from South L.A. to Compton, Carson and a slice of Long Beach.
Such is the power of his resurrection tale that actor Matt Damon has donated to his campaign and television pioneer Norman Lear sponsored a fundraiser.
His high-powered supporters tend to focus on Walker's inspiring rise out of bleak beginnings. As he steps onto a bigger public stage, though, he will also have to address more directly what happened during his fall.
Walker's story begins in Nickerson Gardens, one of Watts' most notorious housing projects. It got so bad in the 1980s, police barely dared to venture among the sketchy, gang-ridden low-rises.
Young Prophet carried an added burden. He was just 6 and his sister 4 when their mother left them one day to forage for a fix. She never came back, and the kids landed with their father, Nathaniel.
Although his father was a dependable provider, Prophet struggled. Bused to Reseda High School, he failed many classes and got suspended twice, court records show. In early 2004, at just 16, Walker and two companions stole $20 from a man who had stopped at an ATM near USC.
His arrest and probation inspired a brief turnaround. Walker switched to an alternative school, earned mostly A's and B's and received citations for leadership, including a commendation from L.A. City Councilman Bernard Parks.
Eight months later he was back in trouble — and this time, it was much worse. Walker and two other teenagers robbed three young men over two days, all of them in or around MTA transit lines, authorities charged. One teen menaced the passengers with a dummy .45-caliber pistol. Walker joined the gunman in beating one of the victims badly — breaking his jaw in three places and taking his CD player, sheriff's investigators said.
Walker recalls the shock, a few months later, of being sent to adult court because of what a judge deemed the sophistication and severity of the crime. He pleaded guilty to the first of the robberies, while the other two counts were dismissed, and he got six years in state prison. "I remember thinking, 'I should be at the prom or with my daughter or something other than this. I am not a criminal.'"
He has offered multiple mea culpas for his youthful errors, especially the beating. "The stupidest thing I ever did," he calls it.
But in some previous public appearances and in his campaign literature, Walker's version takes some of the onus off his younger self. He has said that he "got into a fight" the day of the beating. He said he merely asked for the time from a Latino passenger, who responded with profanity and a racial slur, touching off a brawl. The purported provocations are not reflected in police or court records.
If his three opponents in the Assembly race — Long Beach City Councilman Steve Neal, Carson City Councilman Mike Gipson and Compton school board member Micah Ali — know anything about the inconsistencies, they haven't said so.