Gregory used his celebrity status to draw attention to segregation, committed and involved
"Yes! We've made progress, however the Struggle Continues"
Gregory first ventured south in the autumn of 1962 and from that moment his interest in comedy waned in favor of direct action. He and his wife Lil - mother of their 10 surviving children - have been jailed over 50 times in Washington DC alone.
In Birmingham, Alabama, he served 180 days for "parading without a permit". ("The judge said: 'I'm not giving you six months because you're a Negro. I just hate comics.'")
"I've been married for 45 years," "but that has nothing
to do with love. She just said: 'Nigger, if you ever
leave, I'll kill you.'"
Shoulder to shoulder with Martin Luther King, he led marches in the struggle to register black voters for the 1964 elections, during which protesters were beaten, murdered and framed. He confronted the sheriffs on and off camera, tormenting them with the same wit and courage that distinguished his stage act.
"Dick Gregory," writes Tony Hendra in his definitive history of subversive comedy, Going Too Far, "was one of the very few humorists who got the opportunity to put his craft on the line for a life or death issue. When he got that chance, he rose to it magnificently. His very presence made the Southern police look ridiculous. He made them look like clowns. Not surprisingly, they jailed and beat him - but when they did, they looked even worse. Beating a comedian?"
Gregory suffered "the worst whipping of my life" in May 1963 after Martin Luther King's march against school segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, where young children who had joined the parade were beaten and locked up.
"After we'd been arrested," he says, "I saw this officer trying to pull a little boy out of our cell. I tried to stop him because I was afraid what he might do. So many people disappeared. They beat me with baseball bats."
The composure with which he recalls this incident contrasts with the mood of a speech he gave to a mainly white audience in Boston in 1968. "We were trying to integrate the schools of Mississippi," he told that meeting, "and we took those little five-year-olds by the hand and walked them to the clean white schoolhouse, just like the U.S. Supreme Court had said that we could. And there they were, waiting for us: the sheriff and all them cracker KKKs. And they cut us down with bats and bricks and then stomped on us. Ten feet from me I saw this five-year-old girl with her head busted open by a brick. You ain't never seen nothing in your life until you see a five-year kid get hit by a grown man with a brick. I'm non-violent, but I'm damned if I'll preach non-violence to a man whose five-year-old daughter has got her head busted open by a brick."
"Beside me," a New York Times reporter wrote, "a girl has tears running down her face. The boy next to her is literally shaking in his seat."
"I don't think Dick Gregory is funny," said the segregationist George Wallace, Democratic Governor of Alabama. "Not any more."
The truth is that Gregory hadn't been making Wallace laugh for quite some time. John Kennedy, who had previously had Gregory round for dinner at the White House, rang to advise him to back off. The majority of black stars avoided the marches for fear of alienating white fans. Their unease was well-founded.
By 1964, Robert Lipsyte told me, "He was blowing his career. Promoters were too frightened to hire him. As his income dwindled, an increasing amount of it went to the cause. Like Ali," Lipsyte added, "who always thought of himself as more than a boxer, Greg always considered himself more than a comic. Both men suffered enormously for their political convictions. But unlike Ali, Greg was conscious of his role from the beginning. He knew that his presence at Southern demonstrations would save lives, even if it killed his career. His agents went nuts over this."
Lipsyte first met Gregory "on 16 September 1963 in a New York hotel room. When I went in, Dick was alone, lying on the bed in his undershorts, crying." The performer was holding a newspaper cutting describing the murder of four young black girls in a church in Birmingham, Alabama, committed the previous day. Once, Lipsyte recalled, he lost his temper after the performer showed up late. "I can tell you been waitin', baby," Gregory told him. "You sound colored."
East Coast liberals had no problem empathizing with a comic beaten up in the name of Dr King. ("Imagine all this was burnt cork," Gregory used to tell them, "and you guys had wasted 20 years being tolerant for nothing.") They were less eager to applaud a man who bonded openly with Malcolm X.
"I'd just come back from Mississippi one evening, in the early 1960s," Gregory recalls. "The phone rings in my hotel room, in New York. This voice says: 'Dick Gregory? Brother Malcolm.' He says: 'Brother Greg, I understand you've been marching down South. I'd like to know when you can come over to the mosque and get with the people.'
"I said: 'I'll come now,' Gregory recalls. 'On condition that you put a photograph of us, together, on the cover of Muhammad Speaks.' He said he'd call me back." Five minutes later, "the phone rang. Malcolm said: 'Dick Gregory - have you been drinking? You know your audience. You know we can't do that.' Then he laughed. That's how we became friends. That brother," he adds, "had a great sense of humor."
"It's a side of Malcolm X that never quite came across in my parents' Sunday Express."
"I can believe that, but he didn't care."
"Why did he like you?"
"Because I wasn't terrified of what might happen to my career, and because I supported The Movement."
And yet, Dick Gregory adds, "Malcolm would never go down South."
"Because he was scared."
Gregory, while practicing non-violence, applied himself to the cause using attributes which suggest he would have made an exceptional street fighter: rage, decisiveness and an absolute disregard for his own safety.
The morning after the disappearance of Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney (the activists murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964, whose case inspired Alan Parker's 1988 film Mississippi Burning) Gregory was in the office of Sheriff Rainey, in whose jailhouse they were last seen alive.
"I told Rainey: 'I know you killed those boys.'"
The sheriff responded by offering Gregory a Coca-Cola. "I said: 'Give it to your momma.'"
Such examples of Gregory's reckless insubordination recur in newspaper reports and leaked government files.
"You know what?" Gregory says. "Something occurred to me recently. Has there been any other movement where pretty well every one of its leaders has been killed? Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy..." He opens the file on the table and takes out a picture of himself with Martin Luther King, who appears in an emotional state. "If you look closely at that picture," he says, "you can see there are tears in his eyes. It was taken when I was Presidential candidate in 1968." [Other black candidates have stood in the primaries; Gregory made it to the final round by entering as an independent, write-in candidate.] "Dr King had just told me: 'You know - I believe they are going to kill me.' That was three weeks before he died."
"I was so embarrassed," he goes on. "I just said 'Yeah, Doc. But they're going to kill us all.'"
Gregory, who says he believes in God but is attached to no church, thinks some force was protecting him. It's true that his life seems to have been lived by reprieve: he should have been with the civil rights leader Medgar Evers, on the night he was assassinated in Jackson, Mississippi, in June 1963, but was called back to Chicago because his son, Richard Junior, had died of pneumonia aged 10 weeks.
"Right after I got back home," Gregory recalls, "I got a call. This guy says: 'Is this Dick Gregory?'
'The nigger comedian whose kid just died?'
"Then he said: 'Well I'm glad.'"
Excerpt from an interview by David Chalmers