From Afro to Suit and Tie
Gossett, who keeps pictures of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X on either side of his computer, went from wearing an afro and dark shades and marching on the president’s office at the University of Washington to donning a suit and tie to fight his battles in the chambers of the Council.
“In my 20s, I said nothing but total revolutionary transformation will work and it’s not useful to spend time trying to influence incremental reforms,” Gossett said. “I learned that it is possible for people who are progressive advocates for the poor and the working class to influence electoral politics.”
Birth of a Revolutionary
Gossett was born in a segregated wing in Seattle’s Broadway Hospital on February 21, 1945, and grew up in the Central Area and Beacon Hill. His father, who moved to Seattle with his mother the year before Gossett was born, worked as a mail carrier in the Queen Anne neighborhood.
When Gossett graduated from Franklin High School and entered the University of Washington in 1963, he had little interest in politics. “I didn’t have the kind of altruistic values as a young student. To characterize myself at the time, I was a Negro student, extremely fortunate to be at the University. There were about 40 or 50 black [male] students on the University of Washington campus out of a total population of 32,000, and half of those 50 were athletes,” said Gossett, a non-athlete. He recalled that his goal was to get a degree and land a good job.
Gossett’s life changed in 1966, when he joined VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America). Although Gossett originally saw the program as a way to get a deferral from the war in Vietnam, 18 months of service in New York City had a profound impact. Gossett served part of his stint in Harlem, where he was in charge of providing tutoring and recreation to kids under 12. One of his first duties was to complete a survey, in which he found that 9,000 people lived on the block where he was assigned to provide services, compared to 110 people on the block he grew up on in Seattle.
It was an awakening, Gossett remembered. He recalled the “roaches, rats, and junkies” he encountered in Harlem. “Very quickly,” he said, “it became easy for me to see how, living in those conditions, many people would turn to drugs and alcohol.”
At the same time, the Black Power movement -- which advocated black pride and economic self-sufficiency and was then being led by firebrand Stokely Carmichael -- was growing, and Gossett began to soak up new ideas. “In Harlem, I was exposed to Harold Cruse, who wrote The Crisis of Negro Intellectual,” he said. “I was introduced to Malcolm X -- I’d been scared when I saw him on TV in Seattle. I got introduced to some cats I thought were bad: V. I. Lenin, Karl Marx, and Che Guevara. ... My name changed from Larry Gossett to ‘Aba Yoruba.’ My dress changed, I started wearing dashikis every day. My hair changed -- I grew a natural in 66 or 67. I started wearing shades.”
Gossett was tempted to stay in New York, but decided to return to Seattle, where he felt he could make the most difference.
“When I left Seattle, I considered myself an integrationist, a capitalist,” Gossett said. “When I came back, I considered myself a revolutionary Democratic Socialist. I did not think that capitalism could eliminate racism or economic exploitation. The only thing possible was democratic socialism.”
Back to the UW
Gossett returned to his studies at the UW with new energy. During his absence, Carmichael had given a galvanizing speech at Garfield High School and the Seattle chapter of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which Carmichael headed, was formed. In January 1968, Gossett helped form and became president of the Black Student Union for Washington and Oregon.
On March 29, Gossett came to wider attention when he -- along with activists Aaron Dixon and Carl Miller -- led a sit-in at Franklin High School. Two black girls had been sent home and told to straighten their Afro hairstyles, and Gossett and the others demanded that the school reinstate the students, recognize the Black Student Union, begin an African American history class, and hire a black principal or vice-principal.
The school administration acceded to the demands, but four days later, 16 of the sit-in’s participants were arrested on charges of unlawful assembly and taken to the King County Jail, where they were put in cells in the same place King County Council members now have their offices. Gossett, Miller, and Dixon were still in jail on April 4, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. While riots and violence broke out around Seattle, the three incarcerated men calmed the other prisoners and led discussions among them.
“The black prisoners didn’t understand the concept of Black Power -- they wanted to beat up the white prisoners,” Gossett said. “We said no, that’s not way to pay tribute to Dr. King. He was for nonviolence, he was bringing people together across racial lines in the Poor People’s Campaign. We said, ‘You’d embarrass King. What we should do is talk to the white prisoners, who are also oppressed.’ We thought it was political that we were all in jail.”
“It seemed that jail directors should have been glad of that, but it scared them to death,” Gossett recalled with a laugh. “They were going to county commissioners saying: ‘You got to get these Negroes out of jail!’ ”
Although 1968 was a tumultuous year across the country and the world, Gossett said institutional racism was so accepted in Seattle that Black Power demands came as a total surprise to many.
“When the sit-in took place, the superintendent of schools, the mayor, the police chief, they were so shocked that their Negroes ...” Gossett shook his head and paused before continuing: “Seattle just didn’t understand. They said, sit-ins happen in the South where they’re not nice to their Coloreds. Up in Seattle, we’re nice. We don’t have those problems. No need for anybody to want Black Power in Seattle. That’s how the white power structure saw our city, yet in sixty-eight, 50 percent of black people in Seattle lived at or below the poverty level.”
Some 1,500 people showed up at the King Country Courthouse for the arraignment of the three men, who were released on their own recognizance.
The UW Sit-in
While awaiting trial, Gossett helped lead another historic sit-in, this one at the office of Dr. Charles Odegaard (1911-1999), the president of the University of Washington. The 150 students and activists who marched into the administration building shouting “Equality Now!” presented a list of five demands they had originally put forward in January, including:
- Recruitment of more Black, Asian, Latino, Native American, and poor whites into the UW under flexible admissions criteria;
- Establishment of a black studies program;
- Recruitment of more black faculty, administrators, and counselors;
- Establishment of social and cultural support systems for the students on campus;
- That black students be represented on advisory and decision making bodies at the UW campus.
The students were nervous before the sit-in -- Gossett thought they might be expelled -- but the president was receptive.
“After about four hours, Odegaard signed off and accepted our demands. The rest is history,” Gossett said. “The University set up one of the first and biggest [programs for the recruitment of minority students] ... Between 1970 and 1995, 52,000 people of color graduated from the UW, not counting the poor whites that got in. Of that 52,000, 54 percent, or about 29,000 or 30,000, entered the University through what came to be called the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP). ... All these people wouldn’t have gotten in without flexible admissions. I’m very proud, because those men and women are now administrators, politicians like me, teachers, farm-worker administrators, actors, actresses -- that’s what that sit-in was all about.”
Gossett, Miller, and Dixon still had to go on trial for the earlier charges brought after the sit-in at Franklin High School. On June 19, the men were found guilty, touching off street violence in the Central Area that raged throughout the summer.
At the same time, Gossett was hired by the University to help create a Black Studies program. After being released on bail -- the conviction was eventually overturned on appeal -- Gossett visited universities across the country to research Black Studies programs and also began actively recruiting minority students to the UW.
“We went into the farm fields in the Yakima Valley and stopped Mexicans from working,” Gossett said. “We’d ask: ‘Any of you got a high school diploma?’ If two would raise their hands, we’d say, ‘Come on, we’d like to get you into the UW!’ We did not ask for GPA -- we were looking for students to go to the U that would have some determination and interest. We went to the Muckleshoot Reservation and asked, ‘Anybody got a high school diploma?’ In the black community we’d go to pool halls, barber shops, everywhere.”
Gossett went on to become the first student at the UW to graduate with a degree in African American studies. In September 1970, before he had his B.A., he was hired to oversee the Black Student Division under the newly founded Office of Minority Affairs.
Although Gossett did his job at the University, he wasn’t happy to be simply an administrator. He took part in high-profile actions such as the occupation of the abandoned Beacon Hill School in October 1972, which established El Centro De La Raza, the Latino community center. In 1973, he was arrested while protesting for more minority representation in jobs at a Seattle Community College construction site. Eventually, Samuel E. Kelly, head of the UW’s Office Minority Affairs, asked Gossett to “cool it.” Gossett decided he wanted to get back to grassroots organizing and left. Coming full circle from 1968, Gossett received the UW’s Odegaard Award in 1975, presented by the Friends of the EOP for service to the university.
That same year, Gossett published an editorial in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer calling for “Third World solidarity,” or unity among all minorities. He wrote: “If we, as Third World people, are to change our social and economic status in this country, then it is imperative we unite around the position that we are all oppressed by 'the same enemy.' ” To further this idea, Gossett formed MOVE (Making Our Votes Count) with International District activist Bob Santos (1934-2016), El Centro de la Raza founder Roberto Maestas (1938-2010), and American Indian activist Bernie Whitebear. At the time, Gossett recalled, he was tempering his more radical roots with the belief that change could come from the ballot box.
The group became heavily involved in the 1977 mayoral race in Seattle, eventually deciding to back Charles Royer over opponent Paul Schell (1937-2014). "We went out and campaigned, door to door in the community, talked [Royer] up, all four of us in that organization," Gossett said. "We got the word out, Royer’s the man for our communities, and he made commitments to us about city priorities and influential positions. As I look back, one reason MOVE did not last longer -- this is my critical assessment -- is that far too many of us went to work for him."
Gossett went to work for Royer, but left in 1979 to head the Central Area Motivation Program (CAMP), an organization Gossett had originally become involved with in 1974. When the previous director resigned after a scandal, Gossett became the CAMP’s executive director, a position he held until 1993.
CAMP provided services such as aid for home energy bills, job-finding assistance, a food bank, and programs for at-risk youth. In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president, beginning a shift away from the large, federally funded social programs of the prior decades. Gossett said that CAMP’s annual budget fell to $250,000 in the earlier 1980s, which he worked to build up to $3 million a year by 1993.
In the mid-1980s, Gossett became involved in Jessie Jackson’s presidential campaigns and became an organizer for Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition. The experience increased his interest in electoral politics.
“I was more and more committed to running,” Gossett said. “I found I was a good grassroots politician. I was looking for an opportunity.”
In 1991, the King County Council was enlarged from nine to 13 seats. Two years later, Gossett won the seat representing District 10, an area stretching from the Montlake Cut to Beacon Hill. Gossett has pursued issues such as the reform of the criminal justice system, better public transportation, and job opportunities for the poor and minorities.
Over his career, Gossett said, he has seen tremendous changes in the racial climate in Seattle. He noted that the 2000 Census showed, for the first time, that more African Americans in King County now live outside the Seattle city limits than in it. The gentrification of the Central Area -- the traditional home of Seattle’s black population -- has been especially rapid since 1990, Gossett observed.
Gossett said that American society in general has become more individualistic. “In the 60s, people were developing a broader social consciousness,” he said. “Stokely in 67, Martin Luther King in 61. Those kind of events inspired people to want to get involved. It was hip and cool to be involved in Black Power, the civil rights movement, or some kind of cultural enrichment activities.”
Now, Gossett said, he has been surprised when he returns to speak to students at the UW. “I was shocked that some students said they felt bad about the educational opportunities they had, and about the fact in particular that white kids saw them differently because of those opportunities,” Gossett told The Seattle Times in 2003. “I was aghast, because I was one of the students in 1968 who risked life and limb and freedom in order for the university to start those programs.”