In 1968, Larry Gossett served jail time on the top floor of the King County Courthouse in Seattle after being arrested for leading a sit-in at Franklin High School. Twenty-five years later, he returned to the same floor, which had been converted from jailhouse to office space, as a member of the King County Council. Gossett's career -- from Black Power activist in the 1960s, to African American community organizer in the 1970s and 1980s, to more than 25 years of service as an elected official on the King County Council -- followed the ups and downs of the civil-rights movement in Seattle. Gossett helped form the Black Student Union at the University of Washington, became the first UW student to graduate with a degree in African American Studies, and served from 1979-1993 as executive director of CAMP, the Central Area Motivation Program.
Family History in Texas
Lawrence Edward Gossett was born on February 21, 1945, in Seattle, the first child of six born to Nelmon Bill Gossett (1923-1969) and Johnnie Evelyn Carter (1924-2018), who were both born and raised in Texas.
In 1873, former slaves founded the farming community Nigton in the north part of Trinity County. The name of the town was given by Jefferson Calhoun (J.C.) Carter (1857-1936), who was born in slavery but in the 1870s graduated from Wiley College, an all-black school located in Marshall, Texas. In 1880, Carter was the first known African American in Texas to be enumerated in the census as a school teacher. In 1885 he met and married Sarah Alice Randolph (1867-1932), and she would become postmaster of Nigton in 1900.
By 1896 the small town had three churches, a sawmill, a wagon maker, a shoemaker, and a population of 500. The Carters owned property and operated sugar mills, and J.C. was the secretary-treasurer for the Farmers Labor Union. In 1929 a Negro Business League was established in Nigton, and Carter became its president and was a progressive leader in the community.
Jefferson and Sarah would have six children. One, Clarence Horace Carter (1890-1839), met Lillie Minnie Mark (1896-1980) while attending Texas College in Tyler, Texas. Clarence and Lillie Minnie married in 1912. They would have seven children, one of whom, Johnnie Evelyn Carter (1924-2018), would become Larry Gossett's mother. She met Nelmon Bill Gossett (1923-1969) while attending Texas College in 1943. They married in Smith County, Texas on April 18, 1944.
A few days later, Nelmon worked an entire day picking 150 pounds of cotton for $1.25. When the job was complete, he was given just $1. When Nelmon asked where the rest of his pay was, he was told, "Boy, if you raise your voice at me again, I'm going to have you put into jail" (Linda Holden Givens interview).
The humiliation of being called "boy" fueled Nelmon's desire to leave the small town. When he arrived home he asked his wife where her sister Marion Editha lived in the north. The Gossetts contacted Marion and asked if they could stay with her until Nelmon could get a job. On June 16, 1944, Nelmon and Johnnie boarded a Greyhound bus for the journey to Seattle, leaving behind blatant racism in Texas.
MLK at Garfield, Hoops at Franklin
The couple welcomed their first child on February 21, 1945, in a segregated room for "colored girls only" on the second floor at the Thompson Hospital at 229-235 Broadway E. The Gossetts named their son Lawrence Edward. Larry recalled his mother telling him about a nurse who said: "All you colored girls have all these kids. Why do you coloreds have all these kids?" To which his mother replied: "What are you talking about? This is my first child." The disbelieving nurse placed her in the segregated room, telling her, "You know what to do." (Givens interview)
While in labor, Johnnie asked her sister Marion Editha for help in getting to the restroom, and it was there, in the hospital restroom with no nurse present, that Larry Gossett was born. Johnnie promptly slapped the baby on his bottom, he started to cry, and the annoyed nurse came rushing in. Larry's father wasn't present for the birth, either -- Nelmon had been sent home to retrieve funds to pay the medical bill.
Nelmon and Johnnie would have five more children: Brenda Joyce Gossett Wigfall (b. 1947), Richard (Ricky) Allen Gossett (b. 1949), Glen Wayne Gossett (b. 1952), Theresa A. Gossett Hallman (b. 1953), and Patrick Gerald Gossett (1955-1997). By 1953, Nelmon was working as a U.S. postal carrier, and the family had moved to the High Point neighborhood in West Seattle. By the summer of 1955, Nelmon had saved enough money to purchase a home at 1803 E. Alder in Seattle's Central Area. Larry enrolled in the fifth grade at Horace Mann Elementary School, where his interest in sports intensified. His disciplinarian father let him go only as far from home as the Rotary Boys Club around the corner, and it was there that Larry started boxing and playing basketball. As a seventh grader at Washington Junior High School, he made the basketball team, playing alongside rising local stars such as Levi Fisher (b. 1946) and Willie Campbell (b. 1943).
In the summer of 1959, Nelmon Carter moved the family to California, though the move south turned out to brief for Larry; the teenager disliked California and complained incessantly, and in June 1960, his parents relented and boarded him on a Greyhound back to Seattle to live with his aunt. He entered Garfield High School as a sophomore in the fall of 1960.
By the fall of 1961, the Gossett family had rejoined Larry in Seattle. His parents began working for the U.S. Post Office to support their growing family and purchased a home on Beacon Hill. On November 8, 1961, Larry, then 16, was in the audience to witness Martin Luther King Jr.'s inspirational speech at Garfield High School, one of two stops that day on King's only visit to Seattle. Soon thereafter, Gossett transferred to nearby Franklin High School, where he made his mark on the basketball team as a 5-foot-8 guard. In his junior year, a few students even initiated a Larry Gossett Fan Club, consisting mostly of young girls who attended every game. By 1963, his senior year, the club contained 33 devoted students. The basketball team had 13 black players, and Larry was the point guard. "The basketball team was historic," he recalled fondly (Givens interview).
Change is Coming
After Gossett graduated from Franklin, he entered the University of Washington with little interest in politics. "I didn't have the kind of altruistic values as a young student," he recalled. "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" (Merlino interview). Gossett was not one of the athletes; his goals were to get a degree and land a good job.
Gossett's life changed in March 1966 when he joined Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) while attending UW as a sophomore. Although he 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 central Harlem on 117th Street between Lenox and 7th Avenue, where he was in charge of providing tutoring and recreation to kids under the age of 12. One of his first duties was to complete a survey, in which he found that an estimated 9,100 people lived on the block where he was assigned to provide services, compared to 110 people on the block where he grew up in Seattle.
It was an awakening. 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" (Merlino interview).
Meanwhile, the Black Power movement -- which advocated black pride and economic self-sufficiency, and was then being led by firebrand Stokely Carmichael popularizing the phase "Black Power" -- was growing, and Gossett began to soak up new ideas. He became a revolutionary, and his thought patterns changed.
"In Harlem, I was exposed to Harold Cruse, who wrote The Crisis of the 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 Mohamed 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." (Merlino interview)
Gossett returned to Seattle in September 1967, feeling he could make a difference in his hometown. "When I left Seattle, I considered myself an integrationist, a capitalist," he 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." (Merlino interview).
Back to the U-Dub
Gossett returned to his studies at the University of Washington with new energy. During his absence, Stokely Carmichael had given a galvanizing speech at Garfield High School on April 19, 1967, and the Seattle chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which Carmichael headed, was formed.
On January 6, 1968, Gossett and other UW students formed the Washington Black Student Union (BSU). Gossett was elected president of the BSU to coordinate and organize in Washington and Oregon.
On March 29, 1968, Gossett came to wider attention when he, along with activists Aaron Dixon (b. 1949), Carl Miller (b. 1945), and Trolice Flavors (b. 1949), a Franklin High School student, led a sit-in at Franklin. Two black girls, Nan Williamson (b. 1951) and Joyce L. Driggers (b. 1952), had been sent home by the principal with a note to their parents and told to straighten their Afro hairstyles. 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 accepted 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 would later have their offices. Gossett, Miller, and Dixon were still in jail on April 4, 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
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 recalled before pausing. "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 '68, 50 percent of black people in Seattle lived at or below the poverty level" (Merlino interview).
Some 1,500 people showed up at the King County Courthouse for the arraignment of the three men, who were released on their own recognizance.
The Odegaard Sit-in
While awaiting trial for the Franklin incident, 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, on May 20, 1968. 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 1968, 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 on 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" (Merlino interview).
Gossett, Miller, and Dixon still faced charges for the earlier sit-in at Franklin. On July 1, 1968, the jury took just seven minutes to find the men guilty, touching off street violence in the Central Area that sparked throughout the summer. Meanwhile, the three incarcerated men calmed 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 the 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" (Merlino interview).
Shortly thereafter, Gossett was hired by the University of Washington to help create a Black Studies program. After being released on bail -- the conviction was eventually overturned on appeal, and on January 14, 1971, the court dismissed the charges -- Gossett visited universities across the country to research Black Studies programs, and began actively recruiting minority students to 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" (Merlino interview).
In September 1970, before Gossett even had his B.A., Dr. Samuel E. Kelly (1926-2009), head of the UW's Office of Minority Affairs, hired him to lead the Black Student Division under the newly founded Office of Minority Affairs. Gossett graduated from UW in June 1971 -- the first student at the university to graduate with a degree in African American Studies.
Fighting 'The Same Enemy'
Although Gossett did his job at the University, he wasn't content to be just an administrator. He took part in high-profile actions such as the occupation of the abandoned Beacon Hill School on October 11, 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 asked Gossett to "cool it." Gossett decided he wanted to get back to grassroots organizing and left UW.
On March 22, 1975, Gossett married Rhonda Christine Oden (b. 1953), originally from Monterey, California, and a graduate of Nathan Hale High School in Seattle. The couple met while he was with the UW Office of Minority Affairs and she was with BSU at North Seattle Community College. They married in a traditional Catholic ceremony at Immaculate Conception Church. Larry's best man was Roberto Felipe Maestas (1938-2010).
In April 1975, coming full circle from 1968 as a community organizer and human-rights worker, Gossett received the UW's Charles E. Odegaard Award presented by the Friends of the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) for service to the university.
That same year, Gossett wrote 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'" ("Third World"). To further this idea, in 1977 Gossett formed Making Our Votes Effective (MOVE) with International District activist Robert (Bob) Nicholas Santos (1934-2016), El Centro de la Raza founder Roberto Felipe Maestas, and Native American activist Bernie Whitebear (1937-2000). Of this period, Gossett would recall that he was tempering his more radical views with the belief that change could come from the ballot box. Gossett, Maestas, Santos, and Whitebear became known as the Gang of Four, or Four Amigos.
The Gang of Four became heavily involved in the 1977 mayoral race in Seattle, eventually deciding to back Charles Royer (b. 1939) 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" (Merlino interview).
Gossett worked for Royer until 1979. On April 1, 1979, the Central Area Motivation Program (CAMP), an organization Gossett had originally become involved with in 1974, selected him as 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 U.S. president, beginning a shift away from the large, federally funded social programs of the prior decades. Gossett said that CAMP's annual budget declined to $250,000 in the early 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. I found I was a good grassroots politician. I was looking for an opportunity" (Merlino interview).
'It Was Hip and Cool to Be Involved'
In 1991, the King County Council was enlarged from nine to 13 seats, and in 1993, Gossett won the seat representing District 10, an area in Seattle stretching from the Montlake Cut to Beacon Hill.
King County itself was originally named for William Rufus DeVane King (1786-1853), a U.S. vice president, and also a slave owner. In 1986, the county council passed a motion naming the county in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., an "action that went relatively unnoticed until 1999, when Gossett moved to replace the county's crown logo with an image of Dr. King. In the debate, it was noted that only the state legislature had the power to rename a county. Efforts to pass the necessary legislation succeeded in 2005, officially renaming the county for Martin Luther King. After a design process, a new logo was unveiled in 2007" (Schein, "Renaming King County ...").
In 2011, Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), a nonprofit organization providing housing and services for the homeless in Washington, named one of its buildings in honor of Gossett. Gossett Place, located at 4719 12th Avenue NE in Seattle's University District, includes 62 apartments for homeless young adults and veterans.
Gossett suffered a stroke in September 2013 but returned to work less than three weeks later, continuing to champion issues around racial equality and economic freedom. Gossett "has long advocated for the underrepresented and underprivileged in King County during his entire career. He is an advocate for programs that help inner-city youth and reduce racial and class disparities in our local criminal justice system. He has also spearheaded efforts to eliminate black-on-black violence and other manifestations of self-hatred by poor and disenfranchised populations" (King County website).
Gossett witnessed tremendous change in the racial climate in Seattle over the span of his career. He noted that the 2000 census showed, for the first time, that more African Americans in King County were living outside of the Seattle city limits than inside, and that gentrification of the Central Area, the traditional home of Seattle's black population, had been especially rapid since 1990. Gossett opined that society in general had 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" (Merlino interview).
Running for reelection in 2019, Gossett faced a stern challenge from 31-year-old lawyer Girmay Zahilay. On April 6, 2019, Zahilay defeated Gossett in the primary with 52 percent of the vote to Gossett's 39 percent. Both men moved on to the general election in November 2019.