“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
HOUSTON- Dick Gregory became the first Black stand up comedian to break color barriers in the 1960s during a time when making light of segregation and race relations in stand up comedy was new to American stages.
However, it was his multitude of contributions to not so funny issues like racism, social justice and equality that will make Dick Gregory’s legacy last forever.
At 84, Gregory took his eternal seat with ancestral greats of African-American history last week, but already many who knew him are reflecting on his impact now and as the Black community faces a challenging future ahead.
“He was very important to Black History and the fight for equality and justice in America,” said African-American News and Issues Chariman Roy Douglas Malonson. “He paid the price for the stands he took to advance the cause of social justice and civil rights…He jeopardized his whole career for the struggle of his people and this is to be commended and must always be remembered.”
Gregory had a unique and eccentric way of talking social justice and civil rights and it was that approach that helped change the dialog, course and thinking of many in America.
Gregory was raised in a single parent home by a mother who clean houses for Wealthy Whites, but despite that, he said his mother was very influential in his life and encouraged them to go through life with a positive spirit focused on laughing and not crying.
From an early age, Gregory demonstrated a strong sense of social justice.
While a student at Sumner High School in St. Louis he led a March protesting Segregated schools. Later, inspired by the work of leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Drafted in 1954 while attending Southern Illinois University at Carbondale on a track scholarship, Gregory briefly returned to the university after his discharge in 1956, but left without a degree because he felt that the university “didn’t want me to study, they wanted me to run.”
In the hopes of performing comedy professionally, he moved to Chicago, where he became part of a new generation of black comedians that included Nipsey Russell, Bill Cosby, and Godfrey Cambridge.
Remembered and Respected by Great Leaders & Minds
The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, called Dick Gregory, a brilliant social critic, satirist and soldier in the Cause of Freedom, Justice and Equality.
“He was a great, great soul. Any of you who know anything about Dick Gregory, you know that we lost a great one,” Farrakhan said. “He’s gone, but he’s still here in all of us that he taught and shared his wisdom with. He’s here with us. We must honor him by continuing the work he sacrificed for and devoted his life to.”
In one instance Farrakhan remembered how Gregory supported the organizing of the Million Man March.
“Brother Gregory was right there,” he said. “He stood strong on behalf of an effort aimed at saving and serving our people. He was a fighter and a Servant of Our People…his work on behalf of those deprived of the essentials of life will never be forgotten and his contribution to our struggle will live long amongst us.”
According to Farrakhan, Gregory was not only a man of great humor, but also a man of great intellect and great wisdom. “While he often made us laugh, he was making us to think and learn at the same time,” he said.
Texas 18th District Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee expressed deep respect for Gregory and recognized his contributions an influential and monumental for a man who did not serve in elective offices.
“It is with deep sadness that I recognize the passing of Dick Gregory, who brought laughter to millions during the darkest days in the struggle for civil rights,” said Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. “Mr. Gregory was a pioneering African American comedian who opened doors of opportunity to comics who had previously been shut out due to the color of their skin.”
Gregory spent his life as a living symbol and voice of Black people and the poor and took advantage of his God-given skills and opportunities to do real talk about Black life and living and shared the experiences of others on being Black and living Black in America.
It was that boldness and candid words and actions that opened the gate to more constructive dialog on civil rights and other social justice issues.
“Dick Gregory was always a purveyor of truth as he saw it,” said Texas State NAACP President Gary Bledsoe. “He was an important part of the Civil Rights Movement and racial advancement in this country in and out of comedy.”
Bledsoe said he had the opportunity to actually spend time with Gregory on several occasions and listened to him often on Joe Madison’s Black Eagle Radio Show.
Bledsoe remembers fondly several of of Gregory’s many talks about his experiences and one specifically recalled reading one of his books when he was a young student.
According to Bledsoe, in one instance, Gregory talked about how he was integrating this restaurant and ordered chicken. “He said a couple of racists came up and told him that whatever he did to that chicken they would do to him. Gregory said he proceeded to look at them directly, pick the chicken up and move it towards his mouth and then kissed it.”
He also to a story of how he recalled how Gregory subtly tried to reach out to middle and lower class whites by telling them they weren’t the real “white folks” because they had modest lives and no real power and he hung out with the real ones.
“Though many may not have understood this, he was trying to fuse an understanding that might lead to political alliances that he knew would be beneficial to all,” Bledsoe said. “ Like with James Baldwin, I think it can be said Dick Gregory was not your Negro.”
He praised him for being a resilient trailblazer during a time when the word was associated with being a troublemaker.
“Gregory clearly had courage and vision and probably paid a financial price for his activism,” he said. “What I noticed is that he was the same in public and in private, of course sometimes to the chagrin of some in banquet audiences who may not have been ready to hear his truth.
Born for Activism
Gregory took part in the Civil Rights Movement and used his celebrity status to draw attention to such issues as segregation and disfranchisement. At the invitation of Medgar Evers, he spoke at voter registration rallies launching his civil rights activism.
When local Mississippi governments stopped distributing Federal food surpluses to poor blacks in areas where SNCC was encouraging voter registration, Gregory chartered a plane to bring in several tons of food.
He participated in SNCC’s voter registration drives and in sit-ins to protest segregation, most notably at a restaurant franchise in downtown Atlanta, Georgia. Only later did Gregory disclose that he held stock in the chain.
He fought hard even for those behind bars facing death at the hands of an unbalanced criminal justice system where more African-Americans and Brown brothers are serving life sentences and are sitting on death rows across this country.
He also spent five days in a Birmingham Alabama jail after joining demonstrators at the request of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
He was also know for 40-day fasts to protest the Vietnam War and his one-man civil rights protests to the President in the 1960s in Washington, D.C.
“Mr. Gregory was a friend to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a man of courage, who often placed the equality of African Americans ahead of his own professional career.,” Jackson Lee said. “This nation owes him a tremendous debt of gratitude for his class, dignity and tireless commitment to the ideals that make America great.
Gregory demonstrated his commitment to confronting the entrenched political powers by opposing Richard J. Daley in Chicago’s 1966 mayoral election. He ran for president in 1968 as a write-in candidate for the Freedom and Peace Party, a splinter group of the Peace and Freedom Party and received 1.5 million votes. Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey lost the election to Republican Richard Nixon by 510,000 votes, and many believe Humphrey would have won had Gregory not run. After the assassinations of King, President John F. Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy, Gregory became increasingly convinced of the existence of political conspiracies.
Gregory dedicated his entire life to poking, nudging, warning and painting a verbal pictures of ourselves combining both wisdom & intelligence in hopes that we would unite, work together as a race of people to improve our condition and positions in life.
Fort Worth Activist Rev. Kyev Tatum said Dick Gregory is loved by many because he taught Black people how to look at things differently and think beyond the obvious and find the significance.
“His insightful brilliance will be missed and cherished for generations to come,” he said. “Our hearts, thoughts and prayers are with his family.”
Gregory wanted Black people to learn from the past and make the significant changes needed to secure gains towards economic, intellectual, social and spiritual independence.
In his last interview with African-American News and Issues in April 2017, Gregory shared his wit and wisdom, but also lamented about a race of people (Blacks) he still saw as drifting without real leadership, a real self determination and still unable to call a place home.
“Black folk are not thinking for themselves,” he said. “We are not making decisions…we won’t do anything unless the White man tells us too.”
He added that Black folk have only themselves to blame for not taking charge of their destiny and must look as ourselves before pointing fingers at anyone else for our problems.
Unselfish Life of Service to Mankind
“The work of Dick Gregory reflects his efforts on behalf of all humanity and God blessed him to present it across ethnic and racial lines,” Activist and Journalist Jesse Muhammad said. “I appreciate him and am thankful for his life. His example provided us all with the definition of sacrifice for a cause greater than yourself.”
9th District Congressman Al Green summed up his thoughts on the loss of the Civil Right Icon.
“He was one of the greatest comedians of his time and more,” Green said. “He (Gregory) was a great philosopher with greater insights into human relations than most.”
Green said his example of humanitarianism were unprecedented and unmatched.
“He was a great man who made sacrifices so that others could have better lives,” he said. “His unfiltered presence and pearls of wisdom will be missed.”
Robert South once said “If there be any truer measure of a man than by what he does, it must be by what he gives.” Dick Gregory was that kind of man.
By: Darwin Campbell