How Seattle’s Gang of Four changed the activism playbook | KUOW News and Information

How Seattle’s Gang of Four changed the activism playbook

Nov 5, 2017

The 1960s brought marches, boycotts, and moments of unrest to Seattle as the battle for civil rights played out across the country.

That was also when four local activists — Roberto Maestas, Bob Santos, Bernie Whitebear and Larry Gossett — joined together to give voice to Seattle’s minority communities. Their nickname was the Gang of Four.

The last surviving member of the group, Larry Gossett, remembers the day he met Roberto Maestas. Gossett was a student at the University of Washington, where he'd founded the Black Student Union to make the education system accountable to black people.  On March 29, 1968, three black students from Franklin High School were expelled.

One student, the president of the school’s Black Student Union, got in a fight with a white student.

“He didn’t even get a chance to present his side, and he was expelled,” said Gossett.

Gossett said two black female students were also expelled for wearing their hair natural, in an Afro. He said the girls were sent home with notes to their mothers that read, “Until your daughter looks ladylike, she can no longer attend Franklin High School."

Black students were outraged. They wanted to burn down the school, Gossett recalled. He arrived with other UW student activists, hoping to prevent violence. The students staged a sit-in in the principal’s office and issued a list of demands.

Gossett said that one teacher stayed with the students: Maestas. Gossett introduced himself, and for the next two hours, Maestas asked questions about the sit-in. Gossett said no other teacher stayed or showed interest.  

In this photo, defendants (L to R) Aaron Dixon, Larry Gossett, and Carl Miller speak to the press at King County jail some time after their arrest for unlawful assembly in connection with the Franklin High School sit-in, March 1968.
Credit MOHAI, Cary W. Tolman Photographs, [2002.68.9.10]

Gossett crossed paths again with Maestas again when they were both leading protests — and he met Santos and Whitebear the same way.  Individually, they were rallying for Native fishing rights, equal employment opportunities, and farm worker rights. But it just made sense to support each other's efforts.

Roberto Maestas and Celia Cantir during the occupation of Beacon Hill School in 1972. It was an abandoned building activists wanted to be the El Centro de la Raza community center. After a 73 day stand-off, the city acquiesced. It's still there.
Credit MOHAI, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Photograph Collection, [2000.107.124.39.06]

They all grew up poor in Seattle’s inner city, experiencing firsthand the effects of discrimination. 

“All these things happened in our youth and made us think that some of this stuff wasn’t right," Gossett said.

Through the sit-ins and being jailed together, they became friends.

“We just liked each other and could jive with one another and not get mad,” Gossett said.  

But it wasn’t just friendship that made the alliance special, said historian Trevor Griffey. 

“While working within different communities, they recognized they were part of a broader social movement that connected racial justice and economic justice," said Griffey.

The march to protest the Kingdome construction started from the International District to the local HUD office. The group demanded services for the elderly and preserving low income housing.
Credit Photo/Courtesy Eugene M. Tagawa

Griffey co-founded the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project. He noted that Seattle’s dark history paved the way for collaboration. Filipino and African Americans have worked together since the 1930s when they successfully opposed an attempt to prohibit interracial marriage.

Seattle’s housing segregation played a role, too. 

“The only places that people of color could live in Seattle before the 1970s were the International District, Beacon Hill, Rainier Valley and the Central District,” said Griffey. “And so that produces a way in which there’s an overlap in different communities, because the whites-only racism applied to Asians, and to African Americans and to a small Latino community to some degree.”

Bob Santos, Bernie Whitebear, Larry Gossett, Roberto Maestas became lifelong friends. They shared strategies, but they also enjoyed ribbing each other.
Credit Courtesy El Centro de la Raza

By the 1970s, the Gang of Four were all directors of non-profit groups that provided social services to their communities. Bernie Whitebear headed the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation. Roberto Maestas founded and led El Centro de la Raza. Bob Santos was executive director of Inter*Im in the International District. And Larry Gossett headed the Central Area Motivation program. 

Native Americans, led by Bernie Whitebear, demonstrating at Fort Lawton, March 15, 1970.
Credit Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection, Museum of History & Industry, Seattle; All Rights Reserved [1986.5.51939.1]

Their alliance continued, though it was tested by budget cuts. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan slashed federal aid to social service agencies, and the Gang of Four found themselves competing for the same local funds. 

Griffey says the four decided they weren’t going to let that divide them.

“Part of their insight was, we don’t want to be played off each other,” he said. “We want to come with a united front, with a united set of demands for funding. Or else everybody’s going to get encouraged to get side deals, and we’re going to get less than we need for social and racial justice in Seattle.”

At this 1983 fundraiser The Gang of Four lip-synced to 'I Heard It Through the Grapevine. Bob Santos wrote that despite two months of rehearearsing, when it came to the actual performance, they guys were a little out of step.
Credit Courtesy Larry Gossett

The legacy of the Gang of Four continues; the organizations they founded remain a lifeline for their communities. And Gossett said that though his friends are no longer here, their spirit still speaks to him, encouraging him to keep reaching across racial lines. 

“I hear these guys saying that when thoughts of me being a slacker occur," he said. "Yeah, they’d be talking to me." 

Gossett says there are still many challenges facing minority communities today — affordable housing, income inequality and mass incarceration, to name a few. And he believes coalition-building can be as effective now as it was back then.