Gossett: No time to fool around
Actor and activist Louis Gossett Jr. lamented the part of American culture that celebrates violence and material gain, and urged his audience to recall when "the connective tissue was there" that bound families and generations who sought to rise in society.
"That stuff is the stuff that's made of gold to me," said Gossett, as the Academy Award-winning actor and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. 2008 Memorial Lecturer addressed a nearly packed house Jan. 21 at Hill Auditorium.
"It's fine to speak on Martin Luther King Day, but it is a 365 day a year, 24/7 job," Gossett said of efforts to encourage justice and equality.
The star of Broadway and films, including "An Officer and a Gentleman," said past generations, faced with challenges ranging from the Great Depression to racial injustice, taught their young that there was "no time to fool around." He said many youth today are not focused on community but on possessions and individual needs.
Yet Gossett suggested there is positive change in the air as evidenced by black Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama winning the Iowa Caucuses and by Hillary Clinton, a female, also being taken seriously in the presidential race. "There's no apathy left. People are taking stands."
"Something seems to be forming us to change our thought process," Gossett said.
Gossett was 16 when he earned a Donaldson award on Broadway, beating out James Dean for "Best Newcomer." He appeared on Broadway opposite Sidney Portier in "A Raisin in the Sun," and earned an Emmy in 1977 for his portrayal of "Fiddler" in the TV mini series "Roots."
Gossett was nurtured not only by his matriarchal-led family, headed by a great-grandmother who he said didn't attend school but knew where to go in the backyard for home remedies to treat sick children, but also by the Jewish writers and actors of the 1950s affected by the blacklist during the McCarthy era, and by black celebrities of the day, including Sugar Ray Robinson and Jackie
The actor repeatedly returned to a theme that adults and society in general must better inspire the young. "There is no time for any child in America to be messing around," he said. "The thing that gets me emotional is how many young people are shooting one another, filling their bodies with tattoos and wearing rings, and dying before they're 25.
"You are told that the No. 1 commodity on this planet is gold, the pursuit of money, prestige and glory ... but I beg to differ. You see the most important commodity on this planet are the children."
In responding to a question from the audience, Gossett said he has been speaking with film stars including Denzel Washington about film projects focused on black history. "Our history is not on screen, our children don't think they belong," he said.
Gossett is developing a nonprofit foundation The Eracism Foundation, with the aim of developing and producing entertainment that brings awareness and education to issues such as racism, ignorance and societal apathy.
President Mary Sue Coleman and Lester Monts, senior vice provost for academic affairs, opened the program, which was part of the 22nd annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium.
Noting the symposium's theme was inspired by King's message that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," Coleman added. "Members of the Michigan community work for justice every day. It happens through teaching, creating and sharing knowledge, sharpening the critical thinking skills of a new generation. It happens through research that explores how to provide clean drinking water in the poorest communities. It happens by providing free legal services to those in need. It happens through outreach to teachers and students in underfunded schools."
Coleman linked the pursuit of justice to the current political process during this presidential election year. "Regardless of the political badge we wear, we have an obligation to be educated, engaged citizens and participate fully in the democratic process that is the foundation of this country.
"Dr. King said: 'Life's most urgent question is: what are you doing for others?'All of us can answer that question — by stepping into the voting booth, thoughtfully engaging in a sacred rite, and shaping our world," she said.