Louis Gossett Jr.

WEST VALLEY CITY — Six-year-old John Haugland straightened his suit, tightened the shoes he's still trying to fill and scooted onto the stage. His audience milled in and out of the room. 

He is small. But he was not intimidated.

Reciting Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech in a firm, resounding voice that surpassed the demeanor of his age, the room became silent.

"Free at last, free at last," Haugland yelled, his arm in the air as "amens" and "hallelujahs" echoed from the audience. "Thank God Almighty, we are free at last."

The gesture from the student who won a Davis School District speech competition received a warmhearted nod Friday from actor and Academy Award winner Louis Gossett Jr., the first out-of-state resident to receive the Drum Major Award from Utah Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Commission.

Addressing the annual human rights luncheon at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center, Gossett spoke of his hope for children in America, drawing upon his own experience. He grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., in the 1950s, where accused communists fled to start a new life under a new name.

"They were the international cream of the crop in America," Gossett said. "You see people like Neil Simon, Arthur Miller, Danny Kaye, Barbra Streisand and Nelson Mandela. It was a renaissance in politics and music and sports. And I was part of it."

Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers, Captain Marvel and Superman were his childhood dreams. "But none of my heroes looked like me," Gossett recalled. Being surrounded by such historic icons, Gossett wasn't perturbed. "They taught me I could be Superman, too."

Gossett starred in "An Officer and a Gentleman," later winning an Oscar in 1982.

Today, Gossett hopes America can become a true democratic society. "The bigger picture here in the U.S. is that we have to be compassionate to one another and sensitive to one another's cultures so we don't have to drop a bomb in the name of democracy or pull a trigger either here or abroad," Gossett said. "There is no such thing as impossible. No such thing."

Utah Lt. Gov. Greg Bell also spoke, drawing upon history of the human rights movement. The U.S. has made remarkable progress both in school accessibility, formal statutes, rules and regulations and the overturning of state segregation laws, Bell said. But still, "there are hurdles yet to be jumped." 

Bell called for an improved public education system to take on these hurdles.

"Regardless of a child's background, income or parental situation, if we can get a child in front of a good teacher, can keep that child engaged and address some of his or her personal limitations, we have a chance to give that young man or woman a place at the table," Bell said. "What else is worth doing?"

How to go about doing so? Bell pledged to "take the public education system apart," over the course of the next four years.  

Charlene Lui, director for education equity in the Granite School District, was also presented with the Drum Major Award. 

Reaching for a greater togetherness in diversity requires ceaseless vigilance, Lui said. "Bills will be brought to the table and new issues will arise, so we must be ready, continually."

For Jackie Thompson, the educational equity director in the Davis School District, the whole event was spectacular.

"It gives me a sense of pride to see how our differences can make us stronger," Thompson said. "It has been said that service to others is the rent you pay for living on earth. That is Gossett and Bell and so many others within and beyond our community."

E-mail: rlowry@desnews.com