Dick Gregory, who broke down color barriers in white nightclubs as a comedian in the 1960’s died on August 19 at age 84.
Like Muhammad Ali, Gregory understood the meaning of sacrifice. Ali sacrificed the world heavyweight championship and risked going to jail for five years to stand up for his religious beliefs. Gregory, after reaching remarkable heights as an entertainer, walked away from a lucrative career as one of the most successful stand-up comics in America to pursue a lifelong passion as an advocate for social justice,
Gregory came to prominence as the civil rights movement was moving into high gear. His performances were notable for his commentary on black-white relations and a penchant for confronting racism with barbed humor:
* “I sat in at a lunch counter for nine months. When they finally integrated, they didn’t have what I wanted.”
* “I wouldn’t mind paying my income tax if I knew it was going to a friendly country.”
* “I was in a restaurant in Mississippi that was just forced to integrate. Three white boys came over to me and said, ‘Boy, we’re giving you fair warning. Anything you do to that chicken, we’re gonna do to you.’ So I put down my knife and fork; I picked up that chicken; and I kissed it.”
* “When I was a little boy, I told my mama, ‘Mama, I don’t believe in Santa Claus. You know damn well there ain’t no white man coming in our neighborhood after dark.’”
Gregory ran for president as a protest candidate in 1968. Then he turned away from stand-up comedy to become a full time political and social activist. He opposed the war in Vietnam, championed the fight against world hunger, and became a forceful advocate for good nutritional habits.
Speaking about the way he chose to live his life, he later said, “The movement gave me a turtle philosophy. I am the turtle. Hard on the outside, soft on the inside, and willing to stick my neck out. That’s what it’s about.”
Gregory wasn’t always wise. As the years went by, he was given to bizarre conspiracy theories. But he continued to employ comedy as a self-described “social satirist” to confront stereotypes, combat the establishment, and flat-out make people laugh.
A video of Gregory at a February 23, 2008, symposium on The State of the Black Union at the New Orleans Morial Convention Center can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4zHesInx9M8 and tells the tale:
* “I thanked the white dude from Walmart for my cousin. This past Christmas, they had prices so low, he didn’t have to shoplift.”
* “I heard it’s these rednecked uneducated pot-bellied crackers that are creating the problem. And at nine years old, I asked myself, ‘Since when does that type of white boy determine public policy?’ My problem is with the president of Harvard, Yale, MIT, and the major corporations.”
* “They accused Kobe Bryant of raping a white woman, and he went home and bought his wife a four-million-dollar diamond ring. Let me tell you something. If a white woman accused me of raping her and I go home and give my wife a four-million-dollar diamond ring, she’ll go get two more white women.”
I saw Gregory perform onstage in the 1960s. In 1989, I met him.
I was researching a biography of Muhammad Ali that eventually would be entitled Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. Part of my research included interviewing political figures and social activists who had interacted with Ali.
Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Andrew Young, Julian Bond, Ted Kennedy, Bill Bradley, Ramsey Clark, and others were on my list. I met with Gregory at a Holiday Inn near the Hudson River on the west side of Manhattan.
Gregory was a good athlete. He’d gone to college on a track scholarship. So he knew what it meant to be athletically gifted and understood what it took to be great.
We talked for three hours. Part of our time together was devoted to boxing. But that wasn’t what interested Gregory. Some of the thoughts he shared with me that day follow:
* “There were a lot of us against the war in our way. But nobody heard us because we didn’t command the worldwide attention that Ali enjoyed. Then he stood up and said, ‛War is wrong; people get killed in wars.’ And when he did that, he didn’t embarrass the United States. He embarrassed armies all over the world. Had he used his energies differently, had he supported war, this planet would be an even more violent place than it is today. But instead, he taught love.”
* “There are men who will let themselves down and play with their children in the privacy of their own living room. They become silly. They become children with their own children, but nobody else ever sees it. Ali was like that with the whole world. He was what God meant people to be. Loving, kind, generous, good. His whole life was a prayer for peace, justice, and human dignity. He gave so much and never asked for anything back. People didn’t know where he came from. They didn’t know where he was going. But they knew he was there. And when he entered people’s lives, he made them feel good. Right then, not next week, not tomorrow. Being in his presence was like entering a warm room on a bitter-cold winter night.”
* “We live in a society where we claim we don’t want our children to drink. Even drinkers say they don’t want their children to drink. But when the World Series, the basketball championships, any great athletic competition is over, there’s always champagne. Little kids see their heroes pumping champagne, guzzling champagne, pouring champagne on each other’s heads. And until Ali, you never heard praise to God. He was the first great athlete to show the world the importance of prayer. After his fights, right in the ring, the whole world got to see the spiritual Ali. When they put that television microphone in front of him, the first thing Ali always did was give thanks to God. Then the interview could begin.”
* “I don’t know of anyone who’s had as great an impact on people as Ali. Not just black people, not just Muslims. This great monument of a human being is loved all over the world. There’s no person on this planet who’s had the same effect as Ali. He got our attention. He made us listen. And then he grew within people who weren’t even aware that he was there. Whatever the universal God force meant for him to do, it’s out of the bottle and it isn’t ever going back. Ali is inside all of us now. And because of him, no future generation will ever be the same.”
* “If people from outer space came to Earth and we had to give them one representative of our species to show them our physical prowess, our spirituality, our decency, our warmth, our kindness, our humor, and most of all, our capacity to love – it would be Ali.”
* “If I wanted to teach a little grandchild of mine about the universe, I’d go and get Muhammad Ali’s story and say, “Here is what happened to the universe. One day, something went from nothing to BOOMMMM. The big bang. And it keeps getting bigger. If you wanted to do a movie to depict Ali, it would just be a small light getting bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. That was Ali in a sea of darkness.”
* “Ali lived a lot of lives for a lot of people. And he was able to tell white folks for us to go to hell.”
Wherever Dick Gregory’s spirit is now, I doubt that it’s resting in peace. More likely, he’s happily advocating for a higher cause.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His next book – There Will Always Be Boxing – will be published this fall by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.
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