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Dick Gregory in His Own Words: Remembering the Pioneering Comedian and Civil Rights Activist

StoryAugust 21, 2017
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In a special broadcast today, we remember legendary comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, who passed away on Saturday in Washington, D.C., at the age of 84. Gregory became one of the most popular comedians in the country, paving the way for generations of African-American comedians. On Sunday, Chris Rock wrote on Instagram, "We lost a king. They’ll never be another. Read his books. Look him up you won’t be disappointed. Unfortunately the America that produced Dick Gregory still exists." Dick Gregory was the first African-American comedian to sit on the couch of "The Tonight Show," then hosted by Jack Parr. As his popularity grew, so did his activism. In 1967, Dick Gregory ran for mayor of Chicago against the infamous Richard Daley. He was a close friend of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and in 1968 he ran for president against Richard Nixon. Dr. Greg Carr, chair of Afro-American Studies at Howard University and a friend of Gregory, described him as a perpetual student. "His intellectual capacity was honed to precision with a lifetime of deep study," Carr told Diverse Magazine. We feature Dick Gregory in his own words in our 2002 interview with the comedian in our old firehouse studio. We first interviewed Gregory just months after Democracy Now! went on television.

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AMY GOODMAN: Today, a special broadcast. We remember the pioneering comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory. He died on Saturday in Washington, D.C., at the age of 84. In the early 1960s Dick Gregory became one of the most popular comedians in the country and paved the way for generations of African-American comedians, from Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor to Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle. On Sunday, Chris Rock wrote on Instagram, quote, "We lost a king. They’ll never be another. Read his books, look him up. You won’t be disappointed. Unfortunately the America that produced Dick Gregory still exists," Chris Rock wrote. Dick Gregory was the first African-American comedian to sit on the couch of The Tonight Show, then hosted by Jack Parr.

But as his popularity grew, so did his activism. He was jailed and beaten by Birmingham police for parading without a permit in 1963. He took a bullet in the knee while trying to calm a crowd during the Watts riots in 1965. That same year, he spoke at one of the first major teach-ins on the Vietnam War at University of California, Berkeley.

DICK GREGORY: As far as war, as far as the way that radical group will say, "Oh, they’re just holding this meeting because they want to duck the draft," they will always think of little petty things to say. But I’ll tell you one thing: I’m not against armies, as long as it’s the army that’s going to come in after a tornado and help clean up. I’m not against the army if it’s the type of army that’s going to go around the world and distribute food to everyone. But I’d love to ask the boys in Washington, D.C., how a Negro can stand up and say he’s nonviolent—and white America loves that and going to send me over to kill somebody? No, nonviolence, to me, means not that I’m not supposed to hit American white men. Nonviolence means to me that death might put me on its payroll, but I’ll never put death on my payroll.

AMY GOODMAN: Two years later, in 1967, Dick Gregory ran for mayor of Chicago against the infamous Richard Daley. He was a close friend of Martin Luther King Jr., and in 1968 he ran for president against Richard Nixon.

DICK GREGORY: I had already announced, 18 months ago, that I was a presidential candidate as a write-in, because I feel that the two-party system is obsolete. The two-party system is so corrupt and immoral that it cannot solve the problems confronting the masses of the people in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Dick Gregory, by his account, pulled an astonishing one-and-a-half million votes, but the official tally put him at 47,000 votes. And that was as a write-in candidate. During the campaign, Dick Gregory was arrested by U.S. Treasury agents for printing and distributing fake American currency with his own picture on the bills as campaign literature.

He also became well known for his hunger strikes for justice. In 1967, he weighed more than 280 pounds and smoked and drank heavily. Then he began a public fast, starting Thanksgiving Day, to protest the war in Vietnam. Forty days later, he broke his fast with a hearty glass of fruit juice. He weighed 97 pounds. In the summer of 1968, he fasted for 45 days as a show of solidarity with Native Americans. The following summer, he did another 45 days of fast in protest of de facto segregation in the Chicago public schools. In 1970, Gregory went 81 days to bring attention to the narcotics problem in America. Beginning in 1971, he went nearly three years without solid food, again to protest the war. During that stretch, he ran 900 miles, from Chicago to Washington, D.C. During the Iran hostage crisis, Dick Gregory traveled to Tehran in an effort to free the hostages, and he traveled to north of Ireland to advise hunger-striking IRA prisoners. In his campaign against hunger, he traveled to Ethiopia more than 10 times.

More recently, his face appeared in newspapers across the country for his community action approach to investigate allegations behind the CIA’s connection with drugs in the African-American community. He camped out in dealer-ridden public parks and rallied community leaders to shut down head shops. He protested at CIA headquarters and was arrested.

Throughout his life, Dick Gregory has been a target of FBI and police surveillance. And he was virtually banned from the entertainment arena for his political activism. When we come back from break, we’ll hear from Dick Gregory in his own words. Again, Dick Gregory died at the age of 84 in Washington, D.C. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: "Imagine" by John Lennon, partly inspired by Dick Gregory. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our special remembrance of the life of the legendary comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory. He died Saturday at the age of 84 in Washington, D.C. I spoke to Dick Gregory many times. We’re going to go back, though, first, to 2002, when we were in our firehouse studios in downtown Manhattan.

DICK GREGORY: You know, when you think about what happened on September the 11th of last year, the number one problem confronting America—if there’s never another act of terrorism—if this country stays as frightened as it is, it cannot survive. I mean, I never understood what Roosevelt meant when he said, "Nothing to fear but fear itself." I’ve been married 43 years, and the biggest problem I have with my wife Lillian, when I first got married, is scared. She could can’t handle debt.

"When we gonna pay Sears and Roebuck?"

"You act like we’ve got some money. We don’t have no money. And when I get me some money, Sears and Roebuck not my first priority."

Well, but what—look, Sears knew I wasn’t going to pay for that stuff when I got it. On the back of the application, they said, "Who gonna pay for this?" I said, "Your mama."

About two weeks later, I walk in the house, and she’s like losing her—"They did it! They did it!"

I said, "Baby, what’s wrong?"

"They did it! They did it! Here it is: final notice. Final notice!"

I looked at it. Final notice. "Hmm, thank God we won’t be hearing from them no more."

You know, you don’t have to worry. Listen, I have a brother that’s so worried, he called me the other day, he said, "They’re about to repossess my car. What must I do?" Don’t park in front of the house. It’s just simple. Don’t worry.

And for those of you out there, those bill collectors? Look, I don’t know how many of you are aware of the fact that 60 percent of those bill collectors that call you, they are prison inmates. I mean, I had a triple serial killer call me the other day to embarrass me because I’m late paying Neiman Marcus. I say, "Punk, you come get the money. You leave the jail and come get the money."

And then, another thing you have to stop doing, stop having your children lie to the bill collectors. You go to the phone. "Tell him I’m not here." How are you going to tell a child to lie and then tell them one day, "Never lie to me"?

You know, you go to the phone. "Dick Gregory?"

"Yeah, this is Dick."

They don’t know what to do. You see, they’ve been trained that you’re going to say you’re not there. And when you say you’re there, they run back—they run back to the manual: What do you say when they say they’re there? He comes back. "This is not you."

I said, "Boy, how old are you?"

"Twenty-two years old."

"Let me tell you something. I’ve been owing this company this money for 38 years. What makes you think you’re going to collect it in your lifetime?"

And then, when they can’t intimidate you, then they bring the high echelon: Ph.D.s, psychologists, psychiatrists. And the call goes like this:

"Hi, there, guy. When can we expect a payment?"

"Well, I’m not in control of your expectations. Matter of fact, you can expect a payment all the time."

And so, when you stop letting fear interrupt—I mean fear fear. I mean, if you look at NBC, CBS, ABC, in the black community, I mean, black folks have looked at the news—and I know black folks that haven’t even got nothing, got locks on their door. I mean, how are you going to take something from—I’ve got a cousin in Kansas City, Missouri. He have 27 locks on the door and haven’t got nothing in house. I said, "Boy, if somebody broke in here, they would leave something." And the house he live in is so small, he stuck the key in the door one day and stabbed 12 people. And they was in the backyard, OK?

So when you stop and think about—I mean, just think about this for a minute. I keep asking the black community, "What do you mean by black-on-black crime?" And that’s what I tell white folks. You’ve got to listen to black folk, because sometimes they be saying stuff that sound good, but they be talking about y’all. For instance, black-on-black crime. Ask anybody in the black community, they’ll say, "Oh, we’re tired of black folk killing black folk." Now, they didn’t say they was tired of black folks killing. They said they’re tired of black folks killing black folks. Then who be left? You know, I mean, it’s a simple matter. If you go to China today, who do you think is killing Chinese in China? If you go to Italy tomorrow, who do you think killing Italians in Italy? You kill where you live. And if 98 percent of all white folks that was murdered in America last year was murdered by white folks, if they’re not talking about white-on-white crime, why we want to talk about black-on-black crime? Like I say, you kill where you live.

And to all you black folks out there that’s worried about black-on-black crime, join the NAACP, the Urban League, PUSH, SCLC. Get out here with us and work to integrate this country. And I guarantee you, if I’m living in a white suburban neighborhood, and somebody—my old lady makes me mad enough to want to shoot somebody, I’m not going to jump in my car and drive all the way back to the ghetto and shoot you. Trust me. I mean, like I say, you kill where you live. But look at these stats: 98 percent of all homicides in America is caused by friends or relatives. And 96 percent of all homicides in America is caused from arguments, not breaking and entry. So we don’t need more locks on our door, we need locks on our attitude.

So when you look at fear—and, you know, and I understand that, because at the height of the civil rights movement, when I would go south, I mean, I was frightened. Thank God I went anyway. And at that time, I didn’t understand that fear and God do not occupy the same space. And because of the non-fear that the King and that nonviolent movement have, I was able to lose mine.

And so, when you stop and think—I’m 70 years old. When I was a youngster, we celebrated Negro History Week. Now we celebrate Black Month. Now, tell me that’s not progress. Because when—you know when they’re getting ready to give us a month, it be that month with all them days missing. I mean, I didn’t expect a 31 dayer, but I was like wiped out when they laid February on us, because most blacks that I know, not only do we not like February, we don’t even understand it. I mean, what’s a groundhog?

I mean, February the 2nd of this year, I was in Saint Louis. I’m doing this radio show. The white dude said, "Brother Greg, today is Groundhog Day. What do you think will happen if the groundhog sees his shadow?"

So I said, "Man, back up. I don’t play that groundhog."

And he got real hostile. "What do you mean you don’t play groundhog? You anti-American? Anti-social?"

I said, "I didn’t know you was going to feel that way. You feel that way about it, ask me again. I’ll play it."

He said, "Today is Groundhog Day. What do you think will happen today if the groundhog sees his shadow, boy?"

I said, "Six more weeks of winter, sir. But since we’re going to play it, let’s keep playing. Suppose that groundhog come out today and don’t see his shadow, but see five black dudes. Do you know what that means?"

Oh, he got nervous. "No, no, no. What does it mean?"

"It means six more weeks of basketball, chump."

And then we moved from February the 2nd to February the 14th, which is not just Valentime Day, but Saint—huh? Saint! I mean, that’s the only day on the calendar that’s called "Saint." You know how many people lie on that day? Am I the only one, when I was growing up, that sent more than one card to more than one person that said the same thing? "I love you, dear. Without you, I’d just as soon be dead." Try that one twice.

And, you know, when you talk about blacks, the progress we’ve made, let me just say this: Never before in the history of this planet has anybody made the progress that African Americans have made in America, in spite of black folks and white folks being in a state of denial, lying to one another, not talking about it. But the progress. Now, the next move is entrepreneurship. And I would say to black folks, probably the fastest, most economical way to get into business, I would do black greeting cards. Now, I do not want to sit on this show and lead America to believe that Hallmark do not know how to make a greeting card. I don’t think there’s nobody on this planet can make a greeting card like Hallmark. But when you open it up and read it, they have never been able to capture that ghetto vibration. You’ve read it: "The crow doth sing as sweetly as the lark when neither are tended." I mean, do you love me or not? So, we just need some greeting cards with some simple vibrations: "I ain’t gonna to do it no mo’." "Give me another chance, baby." "I know what you’re thinking, but she hit on me first."

So when you stop and think about, you know, fear—now, in flying into New York to be on this show and to say thank you for your efforts and your staff for what you all do across the country, I had to go through some serious changes at the airport. I mean, I had some folks searching me yesterday that found something in my pocket I’ve been looking for for six months. I mean, now, let me just say this here: If you’ve got any complaints about the airport, take that to white folks. I mean, the white—airport is 99.9 percent white folks. Now, if any of y’all out there got a complaint about Greyhound, bring it to me. And what you white folks need to do is go to Greyhound and study us and study Greyhound. We black folks would never tolerate at Greyhound what white folks tolerate at the airport. I mean, more white folks die from heart attacks at the airport than in the heart hospital. Why? Because they make white folks walk 12 blocks to the plane. Try that at—Greyhound bring that bus up to your toe. They made—I mean, you think we would tolerate?

And then, the airline will lose your bag. Now, something happened real interesting, and I just have to get with some white folks and let them explain that to me. You go to the airport, and the first thing they ask you, "Have these bags been with you all day?" If you was a terrorist, would you say no? "Did you pack them yourself?" If you was a terrorist, would you say, "No, I was just standing, and a stranger brought me these bags, I don’t even know what’s in it." And so, I mean, what’s that about?

And then, what was it? Three weeks ago, big news all over the world, the United States government have just implemented a new law, starting this Friday, that everybody’s bags have to go on the same plane with them. I thought my bags was already always on the same plane with me. Matter of fact, when they lose my bag, they would act surprised. I mean, I’m standing there looking at that little circle go around and around and around, and they’re back there just laughing. And then, all at once, when you find out your bag’s not there, you go in, and this line is about 75 people long. You finally get there, and they act like you didn’t have no bags. "What’s the description?" And they give you this description, and that thing hasn’t been updated since 1942. And so you sit there. Greyhound would never do that.

First, when you get on the plane, you strap yourself in. They take off. They read the federal regulations and give you the weather report. They say, "There’s going to be a lot of turbulence between here and Memphis." Right? Well, wait a minute. So, if I don’t like what I hear, what am I going to do? Get off? Greyhound have so much respect for their riders. They will tell you before the plane, the train, the bus leaves the terminal, "There’s a hell of a storm between here and Memphis. You all still want to go?"

And so, consequently—now, when they lose your bags on Greyhound, it’s no mystery. A block before that bus get into the terminal, they will announce, "All the bags got ripped off in Memphis. There are no bags." So I’m sitting next to this white dude, who’s never been on Greyhound before. And he says, "Excuse me, sir. What do we have to fill out?" I said, "You never been on Greyhound? You don’t fill out nothing." At the airline, they have a little office say "lost and found." Greyhound, they just say "lost." They don’t pretend they’re going to find it. And you get there, you just go into the room and just get your bag and get on out of here.

And so, consequently, I just hope some kind of way, when you stop and think about the fear that goes on, and then what job young folks have to do. You know, you hear older folks. Now, I’m 70 years old, so I’ve been listening to old folk for a long time. And sometime we have to stop all this craziness that just because you’re old, you’ve got some kind of wisdom. You can be just as silly at 80 and 90 as you was at three years old. I heard some old folks this morning in New York, looking at young folks. They’re on their way to school. They’ve got these old baggy pants on, shirttail hanging out, shoes not tied. This woman looked at me. She don’t even know me. She says, "Look how they look. Look at."

I said, "What do you mean?"

"Look at them."

I said, "Shh, shh, shh. You in New York. Go and find the Mafia. They dress immaculate."

Do you know what the Mafia pay for their clothes? They’re tailor-made. They are immaculate. The dudes that’s laundering drug money, they live in three and four hundred million-dollar homes. I mean, maybe God is trying to tell us through our young folks that "Never again will you ever look at one of my creatures and judge them from without. You will judge them from within."

And then, when you look at the young folks—listen, I had an old black woman tell me the other day—because I’m 70, she’s trying to relate with me. She said, "You know what? I don’t know what’s wrong with these youngsters today. When we was their age, we didn’t have to lock no doors." You didn’t have nothing. Are you serious? I mean, give me a break.

And so, some kind of way, when you stop and think about, we got to change the books. The books is sexist. The books is racist. I mean, give me a break. Columbus discovered America? Everybody knows that punk got lost. I mean, where was the Indians when he got here? No, this is serious. No, no. Trust me. If you can discover a country that’s already occupied, I take it personal. I can walk out on the parking lot today and discover your car with you in it. Huh? "Shut up and get in the back seat and teach me Thanksgiving."

I mean, finally, let me just say this. If you went home today, and me and some black dudes had taken over your house, killed your animals, I mean, destroyed everything, killed everybody in the house, and you come stick your key in the door, and we open the door and said, "And what are you doing here, savage?" And you say, "Who are you?" And we say, "We the settlers." Now, how would you feel? But go and look at the American history. We come here, took their land, destroyed them and called them the savages and called us the settlers. And we print that in our history books.

AMY GOODMAN: The legendary comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory on Democracy Now! back in 2002. We were in our firehouse studio, just blocks from ground zero, the year before the World Trade Center. Dick Gregory died Saturday at the age of 84 in Washington, D.C. Don’t go away. We’ll return to the interview in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: "Total Eclipse of the Heart" by Bonnie Tyler. This is Democracy Now! And a shout-out to the International Honors Program, IHP Human Rights program, who are visiting us today. We are joined by scores of college students. Yes, this is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our special remembrance today of the legendary comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, who also played a critical role in Democracy Now!'s history. We're going to go back to 2002, when I interviewed Dick here in our firehouse studios in downtown Manhattan, before we moved to our home in Chelsea. We were just blocks from ground zero.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman, joined by Dick Gregory. And, Dick, thank you very much for making it possible for Democracy Now! to once again be broadcast on the whole Pacifica network and all the affiliates. Your breaking with the majority and saying yes to the show has really brought a new era for us.

DICK GREGORY: Well, I’m just sorry that this couldn’t have happened earlier. Let me just tell you something.

AMY GOODMAN: I should say Dick is a new member of the Pacifica National Board, Dick Gregory.

DICK GREGORY: Fear—you know, when you—fear is a gift from God. Fear is supposed to last a few minutes. Fear will make you hear something, and you’ll run through a plate glass window and will not get cut. Fear is what makes a mother walk out in the garage and see that this car have fallen off those stilts and fallen on the baby, and she’ll pick that car up. That fear is supposed to last for a few minutes. And when that fear lasts longer than a few minutes, then it destroys you eternally, because you’re on automatic pilot.

Let’s go back to ground one, September 11. When that happened, for the next six weeks, church attendance went up. Now, let me tell you something very interesting. Alcohol and drug consumption went down. Huh? Now, that almost defies what you would think in times of crisis. No, no, no, fear will make you not want to drink. I mean, if somebody’s chasing you and you’re an alcoholic, you will not slow up when you pass that liquor store. You’re trying to get away. So, then a funny thing happened after the seventh week. Church attendance leveled off to where it was. Alcohol consumption, right now, as we talk, is about 34 percent higher than it was before ground zero. Now, what do this mean? It mean get ready for battered wives. If, before ground zero, every four seconds in America a woman got beat up by her boyfriend or husband—not strangers, people she know—then think about what happens now with the amount of alcohol and drug consumption that’s out here.

And so, when you stop and think about where this is going, watch and see what’s going to happen with the increase of automobile fatalities, drunken driving. I mean, the whole—I mean, I don’t think it’s no accident the same guy ran up on the sidewalk and hit people twice. You do that when you’re under the influence of drugs and the influence of alcohol, and you do that when you’re under the stress of fear. Not to use it as an excuse, but I’m saying America better get ready and understand what this whole fear thing.

You know, there is a legend that says thousands of years ago the plague was supposed to go into Afghanistan—no, I’m sorry, Baghdad—that’s the way the story goes—and kill 5,000 people. The plague went in, and 50,000 people died. So they was questioned the plague. Then they said, "I thought you was going into Baghdad and kill 5,000 people. What happened?" He said, "I did. I just killed 5,000. The rest died from fright." Huh? And when we think about the fear that go down, you don’t ask questions. You don’t ask serious questions.

AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to Democracy Now!, Resistance Radio. I’m Amy Goodman. Our guest for this hour is Dick Gregory. Dick, you have been out there for many decades. You said you’re 70 years old now?

DICK GREGORY: Seventy, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Seventy years old. You first started doing comedy.

DICK GREGORY: I started doing comedy in 1957. At the time, I didn’t know that black comedians was not permitted to work white nightclubs. And I started off in Chicago—well, actually, in the military. I was in the Army. And I was just so outraged about what went on in the military, but I could get away with a lot of stuff, because I was the third-fastest half-mile in the nation when I went into the military. So, you know. But I have hammer toe, so my military records say no extensive use of lower extremities. Means I could never go to battle, I could never train, just run. OK? And so, one day the colonel called me in and said, "You really created a stir on this campus, and so we’re either going to put you in jail or you have to be the funniest cat that exists." And said, "So I’m going to give you ’til tomorrow." Said, "I want you to go down to the PX, and tonight you get on the talent show, or you’re going to jail." And I did. And I won. You don’t have to—you don’t have to be too funny or too smart to win a talent show in the military. They’re depressed. They ain’t got nothing to do. And so I won, with little corny jokes. You know, "So, I just got arrested this morning. I was impersonating an officer. I slept ’til 12 noon." Oh, they just fall all out. Give me a break, right?

So then I won the fifth Army district division. Then I kept winning. And I ended up here in New Jersey at the All Army, and the winner got to go on The Ed Sullivan Show. Huh? I won. But I didn’t get it, because I was too political. How’d I know I won? Because all the comics came up and told me. "Wow, man! We never heard nothing like that." It was a blessing from God, because I knew nothing about show business. You know, I’m just a little punk in the Army. And just being funny in the Army, you know, it’s like being a doctor in the Army. So what? I mean, you can chop up people, kill them, and they don’t mouth—they don’t mouth feed practice in the Army. And so, consequently, I didn’t get on The Ed Sullivan Show. Had I made it on The Ed Sullivan Show, I would not be here today, because nobody could have told me that I wasn’t good, that I wasn’t funny. The fact that I didn’t make it on The Ed Sullivan Show, I got out of the Army, I went to Chicago, I went into a black nightclub—for the first time in my life. I mean, I had never been in a black nightclub, because I was a strict athlete on myself. Never had a drink, never stayed up late. I just lived and slept running track.

I was the first black in the history of America to win a long-distance state cross-country, at a time when even black folks was convinced that genetically we could just run the dashes. I won the Missouri State mile championship. I won the Missouri cross-country championship. I ran the fastest time in America, almost set a high school world record, and didn’t get credit because that was an all-Negro meet. So, at that point, I hooked up with the NAACP, and we led demonstrations about the school system, overcrowded conditions. And in the process of that, they integrated—when they found out what my protest was about, they integrated cross-country that September, and I became the first black in the history of America to win a state cross-country championship. My younger brother came through five years behind me and set the world’s record in the high school mile, Ron Gregory, and got credit for it. So, don’t think what you do today don’t affect people that’s coming behind you.

Now, I go to Chicago. I go into this nightclub, and I hear this black comic. Wow! I went over. Jesus Christ! I mean, that’s as close as you could come to pimping and not get arrested. I mean, you just walk out and start telling jokes, and the whole—it was about 1,500 people in that club shut up and listen to him. So I said, "This is what I want to do. I want to be a comic." So I go to a little bitty night club, South Side of Chicago, called the Esquire Lounge. And I get up on the stage, and I pay the MC to get me up, and I go up. And funny. God, am I funny! They hire me, $5 a night, three nights a week—Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I come back the next week and start. Nobody laugh. You know, it’s one thing when you come off the street, you know, like if someone come in here and do your radio show, they say, "Jeez, weren’t you good?" Try doing it every day. Try knowing all the signals. Try getting the preparation and all of that, OK? So, I go back now, and I’m not funny, because everybody knows this is my job. I’m not just somebody—before, I was one of them, sitting in the audience.

But I was clever enough to say—this nightclub, you could get in for free. A bottle of beer costs 35 cents, and you could sit through three shows. OK? So, I was clever enough to know they didn’t come there to see me. Nobody’s ever heard of me. They come to see the shake dancer, which was called Liz the Body Beautiful, and a guitar player called Guitar Red, which was the best guitar player in the Midwest. And they packed in. So I made a deal. I said, "If you don’t laugh at me, then you will not get Liz the Body Beautiful, and you will not get Guitar Red." So, they—to get what they wanted, they laughed. Now, these black folks tolerated me when I wasn’t funny. And I developed there and got so funny because of them, they pushed me all the way downtown to where I wasn’t making $5 a night, but $5,000 a night, where they couldn’t afford to come see me. That’s an awful thing, that the people who you developed on now is out of your reach.

So, what happened is, I moved to the biggest black night club in the world, Herman Roberts. And I’m there. Well, they bring in Sammy Davis, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan and Joe Williams for Friday and Saturday. Well, all the white folks bought the tickets for the first show. You know, they bring in Nipsey Russell. I never heard of Nipsey Russell. I mean, I had never heard of any comics, because I didn’t know anything about show business, never been to nightclubs, and born and raised in Saint Louis. The only nightclub here was jazz clubs, and so—and little honky-tonk clubs, right? But no comics. So, what happened was, they told me that I didn’t have to work that weekend, because Nipsey Russell. And thank God I had enough courage to stand up and say to the people that ran the club for Herman, "Then you get Nipsey to stay here for the rest of the year. I mean, I’ve been the house comic, and now when you bring in the best show in town and everybody is going to be here, then I don’t get showcased." And so, he said, "OK, wait, ho, ho, don’t quit. You MC the show. But remember now, Nipsey is the comic." And a old black dude told me, he said, "Dick, let me tell you something. If you got two hours to be funny or you got two seconds, use that two seconds like you would, too." And I did. And Hugh Hefner and Victor Lownes—Victor Lownes ran the Playboy clubs for Hugh Hefner. I used to call them Leopold and Loeb, the two of them. They were geniuses. And so, they saw me. I didn’t know. And one day Irwin Corey was at the Playboy Club, and he refused—

AMY GOODMAN: The professor.

DICK GREGORY: —to work seven days. And so, because they saw me, they brought me in for the one day, for $50. Fifty—I didn’t know there was that much money in the world. Fifty dollars for one night. And I added that up, times seven. Now, I wasn’t too familiar with downtown Chicago, because the whole time—actually, I never had no money. I had no reason to go downtown. I had no reason to go to nightclubs downtown. And so, now I’m going to the Playboy Club.

I get on the bus. It’s a blizzard. I’m going—I had to be there at 8:00. I get off at the wrong stop. And I’m running to get there, because this whole cliché of black folks, you know, can’t never be on time. I don’t trust black folks now that’s on time. Queen Elizabeth ain’t on time. I mean, why you got to—why you got to be on time? What’s that about? That’s a game they play. The military function on time, because they want to kill somebody or be willing to be killed. And so, consequently, what happened is, I—I’m running to get there, and I see about eight blocks away this huge sign that says "Playboy Nightclub." And I start running. I’m slipping in the snow. I finally get there, and I say, "I’m Dick Gregory. Where am I?" He said, "The Caramel Room, second floor." Now, I don’t know that they found out that this room had been rented out that night. So it’s no Playboy customers there. It’s been rented out. People with the key, but it’s a frozen food convention from the South. And this is their room. Now, I didn’t know this. Victor Lownes is standing on the steps to tell me that I don’t have to work. You know, you don’t have to work, and you get $50? I am in such a mental state of trying to get there, I didn’t even hear him. I didn’t know who he was. I pushed him out the way, ran to the Caramel Room, walked up on the stage at 8:00, and at 12:00 midnight I was still there. At 12:30, Hefner got out of bed and came over. And that’s how it happened.

AMY GOODMAN: Dick Gregory telling us, well, the very little beginning of his life story. We actually only have a few minutes, and I do want to have you back, but I want to ask how you went from the comedy clubs to fasting against the war in Vietnam, fighting segregation.

DICK GREGORY: I guess I’ve always—I went to Southern Illinois University down in Carbondale. And there was no more racist institution on the planet than there, when I went there in 1952. Now, I’m not saying that there weren’t more racists, but black folk couldn’t get in. And so, when I got there—I’m born in 1932. I go to college in 1952. Twenty years old. As racist as that school was, it was the first time I’ve been around white folks—I come out of Saint Louis—that I didn’t have to call "mister" or "missus." You even said "mister" or "missus" to little children. It was the first time I’ve been around white folks that had to call me by my name. I mean, in Saint Louis, they call you "boy," "coon," "hey you," "come here," "jabbo." And so, I’m with white folk that have to call me Dick Gregory. And I’m with white folks I can call Betty or Mary and don’t have to say "mister."

And I heard the president on freshman orientation day. It’s the first time I’d ever been somewhere where a powerful white man is talking to me from a friendly standpoint. The only powerful people I see in Saint Louis that was white was the storekeepers that was ripping us off and selling us bad food and short weight or the cops or the people in authority. And I heard Dwight Morris say, "I don’t care what kind of grades you make. Can be straight As. You can be a perfect student. If you don’t understand God, you’re a failure." And I walked out of there a changed person. Black women couldn’t live in the dormitory. Black fraternities, sororities couldn’t be. And we changed it. We organized and busted that school. And I can sit here today and say SIU was the first school, major school, that had a black athletic director, Gale Sayers. It was the first major school that had a black vice president. As we sit here now, the president of the whole systems are black, and SIU has 16 percent black folks. That’s the seed that was planted.

So when Martin Luther King and them called and said, "Come South," the only thing that changed for me was, at SIU, I wasn’t afraid. And we integrated the movies. You know what it’s like to have a track partner that’s white, and just on my—we had the—the conference meet was at SIU. I won the mile, the half-mile, the two miles, make it a mile relay. Now, just on my parts alone, we won it. So, everybody got the jacket and the ring. Just—now, we had more points than that, but just on mine alone, we won. I’m walking down the streets at night in Carbondale, and I see all these white dudes on the track team in this bar and restaurant that I can’t go in. So I picked up a brick and threw it through the window to get their attention, say, "Hey, remember me? I’m the one that, you know." And then, from that, we integrated the movies, integrated the whole town. And Carbondale, with all of the problems America have, is one of the few towns that’s bearable. And it would have changed all the way if black folks, coming behind, would have—they would have locked the town down and finished doing the rest.

And so, I went south afraid. And I just sit here today and say thank God I was afraid, but I went anyway. And when my fear left, it had nothing to do with the white folks, who you knew would kill you. It had something to do with the black folks, that you saw the hoses falling on us. What you didn’t see is the line kept moving. You know, I saw a 4-year-old child sweep past me from the pressure of the hose. And before I can get my thoughts together, I see a white nun that the hose sweeps past me, then a priest, then an old black minister and an old black woman that her crutch—her cane flew past first. And then, that night, I’m in jail with 3,000 people, and we’ve taken over the jail. And I see a 4-year-old boy. And I realized how my children’s at home secure. And I asked him, "What are you doing here? It’s 2:00 in the morning." He said, "I’m here for 'teedum.'" He couldn’t even say "freedom." And that’s what made me lose my fear. And I found myself. And all it amounts to is God say, I want to take you off that stage you on and put you out here in the audience, where you can really see yourself. And I haven’t been the same ever since.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you think there is progress in this country?

DICK GREGORY: Let me say this. Never before in the history of this planet have anybody made the progress that African Americans have made in a 30-year period, in spite of black folks and white folks denying the number one problem we’re confronted with now is police brutality. Now, am I saying police brutality is worse today than it was 50 years ago? No. Then what have changed? My mindset. There’s things I would have tolerated 50 years ago that I won’t tolerate there.

Here’s what make police brutality so bad. If I’m in Mississippi and a Klansman say, "Nigger, come here," I say, "Your mama’s a nigger." If he pull out a gun on me, I can take the gun and pistol-whip him. I can’t do that to a cop. If a cop say, "Nigger, come here," I got to stop. If he pull out a gun, I can’t take it. So, they have a power over me. And yet, white America, many folks in the black community—and, finally, just let me just say this here. Colin Powell is probably one of the strongest human beings on the planet, because he’s secretary of state. If Colin Powell was in New York—I’m going to say this twice, so you all don’t walk off and say it happened. If Colin Powell was in New York and his best friend was hit by a car and they called him and they take him to Columbia Presbyterian and Colin runs down, get a elevator, come downstairs to find out that a black man can’t get a cab in New York today. And then he’s asked the doorman, "How far is Columbia Presbyterian?" He says, "It’s two blocks that way and a half a block to the right." And he starts jogging. It’s at 9:00 at night. He starts starts jogging, praying, "My best friend, I hope he be alive when I get there."

AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds.

DICK GREGORY: These racist white cops turn the corner, they see a nigger running, they don’t see Colin Powell. They say, "Stop, nigger." He keeps running, chokehold, he’s dead. And America want to be outraged because we don’t mind you killing a ordinary Negro, but not Colin Powell.

AMY GOODMAN: The legendary comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory on Democracy Now! in February 2002, just months after we first went on television. We’d been on radio for six years. Dick Gregory died Saturday at the age of 84. I last interviewed Dick in 2016, just days after the death of his close friend and fellow Vietnam War resister, heavyweight boxing champ of the world Muhammad Ali.

DICK GREGORY: So, Friday, I’m starting a fast to thank Ali. My wife said, "How long are you going?" I might go 10 years. I don’t know yet, haven’t made up my mind. Have not made up my mind. But I’m not going to eat no more food after I leave that funeral. It might be 10 years. It might be for the rest of my life. I don’t know. That’s the effect he had on me. I’m out here. I know what people do with money. I know the parties they go to. I know how they sit back and woof and talk all the talk. Not me. I’m say thanks to him and to his wife, 25 years. When the glory days was gone, she’s picking him up—

AMY GOODMAN: Lonnie Ali.

DICK GREGORY: —and carrying him and answering the phone. Answering the phone. So when I went by to see him last year, I said, "Can he remember?" She said, "I don’t think so." I said, "I’ll ask him. I owe him about $2 million." I said, "I owe you any money?" "No, no." I say, "He’s sick. He’s sick."

AMY GOODMAN: That was Dick Gregory just last year, in 2016. The legendary comedian, civil rights activist died Saturday at the age of 84 in Washington, D.C. Last night, at a performance at Radio City Music Hall, Dave Chappelle ended his show by calling Dick Gregory a giant and saying he wouldn’t be here today if Gregory had not been there before him. Happy eclipse, everyone. Thanks for joining us.

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