Byron Pitts: Indifference Can Be Deadly :: Video
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CBS correspondent delivers annual MLK Lecture at Ross.
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Veteran CBS news reporter Byron Pitts faced his share of challenges growing up: He was functionally illiterate until middle school, fought a stutter well into college, and faced academic probation once he got there.
It 's hard to reconcile that image with that of the smooth, confident journalist who appears on "60 Minutes" every Sunday or the field reporter dodging bullets in Baghdad for the "CBS Evening News."
He chronicles his journey in the book Step Out on Nothing: How Faith and Family Helped Me Conquer Life's Challenges. During the annual MLK Memorial Lecture at Ross Jan. 17, Pitts noted how Martin Luther King Jr. also "stepped out on nothing" to change our country and ensure the people who came after him lived in a better world.
"Every year when we honor Dr. King, certainly we listen to the speeches," Pitts said to an audience gathered in Blau auditorium. "I would encourage each of us to do more than that, to step out on nothing for someone else. You will be the leaders of not just this nation, but the world."
King was born into privilege, his parents members of the African American elite in Atlanta, Pitts pointed out. King attended Morehouse College and could have led a life of comfort. "Instead he chose to step out into troubled waters."
For his efforts, King was jailed, harassed, and eventually assassinated. But he never lost his optimism. Pitts wasn't talking about the basic "feel-good" kind of optimism, but the "hard-earned" kind.
"For those of you who want to build a great business, please do," Pitts said. "Build a great business. Employ people . . . I want to encourage you to be optimistic, to make the hard-earned choice to be optimistic because there are needs for your talents."
And there are plenty of people who need someone to "step out on nothing" for them. Pitts said if that didn't happen to him —in the form of his mother, a professor, and a friend—"I can't imagine I would be doing anything productive."
Pitts grew up in East Baltimore, the son of a father who worked as a butcher and cab driver and a mother intent on seeing her children succeed in life. His parents split when he was young and his mother worked to send all three children to college.
Early tests revealed that Pitts was functionally illiterate. But he, his mother, and some teachers worked tirelessly until he graduated high school and was accepted at Ohio Wesleyan University. But even then he faced obstacles. An English teacher who flunked Pitts told him flatly that he didn't belong at the school.
A strongly worded letter in red ink from his mother made it clear he was not dropping out, but Pitts was ready to quit. While sitting despondently on campus one day, a woman approached him to ask what was wrong. He told her his story and she made him promise he would come see her before he left.
That person turned out to be Ulle Lewes, a professor who transformed Pitts' life. She mentored him until he could write at the college level, and pushed him relentlessly to improve.
"She didn't just change my life, she saved my life," Pitts said. "She stepped out on nothing to help me. She had no reason whatsoever to stop and say hello to me."
Pitts pursued a career in news, eventually landing at CBS. He's covered wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Sept. 11 attacks in New York, and the Haiti earthquake. A religious man, he's come to grips with the misery and death he's seen as a necessary part of reporting world events.
Through his experience and travels, Pitts has come to identify what he calls humanity's main enemy: indifference.
"I've come to believe over the years that indifference can be a deadly weapon," he said. "I'm encouraging each of you not to be indifferent about your lives, to know that you have the opportunity, and even the responsibility, to make a difference, to step out."
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