The University Record, January 22, 2001

America needs more heroes of color, actor Olmos says

Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2001: Commitment and Renewal

By Britt Halvorson

Edward James Olmos ditched the podium and opted for a wireless microphone when he delivered the Martin Luther King Jr. keynote lecture so he could more easily engage the audience in his presentation. Photo by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services
“Today is a great day to be alive and to celebrate in the 21st century one of the greatest lives that ever lived in the United States of America, if not in the world,” actor and activist Edward James Olmos told a Hill Auditorium crowd during the University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day keynote address. The theme of the 14th annual Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium, with events through Feb. 21, is “Commitment and Renewal.”

A combination of life experiences, social analysis, motivational words and drama, Olmos’ talk emphasized the need for more national heroes of color like King and argued against the use of “race” as a divisive social construct.

Though known primarily for his roles in film and television, Olmos has dedicated much time and effort to humanitarian causes. He is the U.S. Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, a national spokesperson for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and executive director of the Lives in Hazard Educational Project, a national gang prevention program funded by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Also a producer and director, Olmos’ well-known theatrical roles include his Academy Award-nominated portrayal of Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver, his Tony Award-nominated performance in the musical Zoot Suit and his portrayal on the teevision series “Miami Vice,” for which he received an Emmy and a Golden Globe.

In introducing Olmos, Lorraine Gutierrez, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and associate professor of psychology and of social work, said, “In his role as a filmmaker and actor, he has presented the most complex and nuanced views of Latinos in the United States and has made a positive impact on media representations of Latinos.”

Casting aside the wooden podium and later moving some of the floral arrangements that lined the stage, Olmos paced the platform to engage the audience from all sides.

“This is the most important day to celebrate a person’s existence in this country’s history,” Olmos said. “Martin Luther King Jr. is the only person of color who’s been given the right to be called a national hero in this country ever.”

Olmos noted King’s power as a communicator and his ability to touch even those who did not agree with him. “You had to stop and say to yourself, ‘That guy is speaking a truth that must be understood.’”

As a youth in East Los Angeles, Olmos watched King’s speeches on television. He said he remembers feeling mesmerized by King’s strength as an orator and leader. However, King was one of the few people of color who was recognized as a national leader in American society at that time.

Olmos quizzed audience members as a means of pointing out the lack of minority heroes in American history. After counting the number of individuals in the audience with Ph.D.s, master’s degrees and bachelor’s degrees, and noting how many college, high school, middle school and grade school students were present, Olmos asked people to name one American-born national hero of Asian ancestry they have studied. One audience member raised her hand, and after a few more minutes, two other individuals tentatively moved their hands up. When Olmos called on the first person, she named a “hero” who was known mostly to the Detroit area, not nationally.

“You need courage to answer this question in this country,” Olmos said. “That’s the issue—there are no national heroes of color other than Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States of America. People of color make this country what it is.”

In addition to the lack of national heroes of color, Olmos discussed the way religion reflects the power of a ruling race or class in society. Using President Lee C. Bollinger and Lester P. Monts, senior vice provost for academic affairs and professor of music (ethnomusicology), as visual examples, he argued against the representation of Jesus as a person with blond hair and blue eyes. Jesus’ birthplace was in northern Africa, Olmos noted, not Sweden.

“Images are so impactive on the subconscious mind,” Olmos said. “It means a lot to these

children to see Jesus as a person of color. Self-esteem, self-respect, self-worth is the name of the game. When you have these, you don’t want to hurt anyone, you don’t want to hurt yourself.

“It takes an entire village to raise a child,” Olmos added. “We went wrong because we allowed race to become the issue.”

Olmos dared audience members to go for one day without using “race” as a cultural determinant. There are many cultures inside the “human race,” he clarified, but not different “races” within it.

Olmos recounted to the audience how he discovered that he was a descendant of Hungarian Jews. Twenty-one years ago, an older man recognized him in a store and told him that he knew about the origin of his last name. The man told Olmos that his name was Hungarian for “he who works with lead.”

For most of his life, Olmos had thought of himself as purely Mexican American. The news that his name was of European origin stunned him. “A reality hits you and you face it,” Olmos said. He spoke of the joint indigenous and European ancestry Mexicans and Mexican Americans hold because of European conquest of the area.

“Please understand yourselves” in order to benefit society, Olmos said. The United States, he commented, is a “great test” because it is composed of almost all cultures of the world. “We’re passing [the test],” he added.

Olmos also spoke of respect for women, the elderly and the environment. “We’re in trouble because we keep propagating behavior that is not conducive for the environment and for health.”

Looking at the audience, Olmos emphasized the theme of commitment and renewal. “You are the hope and you are the future, whatever age you are. My commitment is to share my life,” he added. “The choice is yours. We have the opportunity on days like this to commit ourselves and to renew our values.”

Also making remarks at the program were Bollinger, Provost Nancy Cantor and Monts.