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“His Laughter was a Battle Cry”: Thousands Celebrate Comedian & Human Rights Legend Dick Gregory

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Thousands gathered Saturday to celebrate the life of legendary comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, who passed away last month at the age of 84. We feature some of the voices of those who gathered to remember him, including Rev. William Barber, president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach; Rep. Maxine Waters; and children of civil rights legends, such as Martin Luther King III; Reena Evers, daughter of Medgar Evers; and Ilyasah Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X.

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Video squareStoryAug 21, 2017Dick Gregory in His Own Words: Remembering the Pioneering Comedian and Civil Rights Activist
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Ayanna Gregory, daughter of the late Dick Gregory, singing at Dick Gregory’s Celebration of Life last Saturday. Yes, this is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

This past Saturday, thousands gathered at the City of Praise Family Ministries in Landover, Maryland, to celebrate the life of legendary comedian and human rights activist Dick Gregory, who passed away August 19th at the age of 84.

In the early ’60s, Dick Gregory became one of the most popular comedians in the country, paving the way for generations of African-American comedians and performers. He 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 the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. And in 1968, Dick Gregory ran for president against Richard Nixon.

He also became well known for his hunger strikes for justice. In 1967, Dick Gregory 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 solidarity with Native Americans. The following summer, he did another 45-day fast in protest of de facto segregation in the Chicago public schools. In 1970, Gregory went 81 days without food to bring attention to the drug problem in America. Beginning in 1971, he went nearly three years without solid food, again to protest the war. During that fast, 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 traveled to the 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 CIA 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.

Well, Saturday’s six-hour celebration of Dick Gregory featured passionate speeches and musical tributes. The program booklet also included letters from former President Barack Obama, the National Newspaper Publishers Association, the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus. We turn now to some of those who gathered to remember Dick Gregory. We hear from the children of the legends Martin Luther King Jr., Richard Pryor, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers—their children. We’ll also hear from Congressmember Maxine Waters. We begin with Reverend William Barber, president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach.

REV. WILLIAM BARBER: To anyone who thinks justice—injustice is final, the joke’s on you. Psalm 37:12 and 13 says, “The wicked plot against the godly; they snarl at them in defiance. But the Lord just laughs, for he sees their day of judgment coming.” Dick Gregory knew this. He was a free man, never lost his humanity.

He was a political and comedic satirist of the highest order. One writer said that “Humorist-activist Dick Gregory was a man of many words whose fighting spirit helped transform … America.” He “was known for his off-the-cuff, no-holds-barred humor. He could captivate any crowd with his cool but passionate demeanor.” He said that “He openly refused to shy away from stinging subjects, but often reminded people that humor was not enough.” It was a vehicle, but not enough. He said, “Humor can no more find a solution to race problems than it can cure cancer. We didn’t laugh Hitler out of existence,” he once said.

“In a time when dissenting opinion,” this writer said, “on race and discrimination could put a literal target on your back, Gregory wasn’t just peddling funny. He said it like he saw it, but then he did it, marching for voting rights … performing at benefits for civil rights groups. He was even shot in the leg while serving as a peacemaker during the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles.” I love that. Gregory once said about racism—Brother Gregory, he said, “Whole lots of Americans got that attitude, and we tolerate it because you can hide your feeling behind policies. That’s why we’ve got to work to flush this whole thing out.” Gregory understood that racism was far more than whether or not you had a black friend.

His laughter was a battle cry. His jokes were not merely for entertainment and money, but for empowerment and movement building. His laughter and his comedy was a bold critique. His satire was fearless and bold as he challenged America’s original sins of genocide and racism and war. He boldly went where other comedians refused to go. But his comedy was not only a battle cry and a bold critique, his comedy and his laughter was a balm in Gilead. It helped to heal the wounds and the soul’s scars of slavery, Jim Crow, the wounds caused by the violent vestiges and dehumanizations of racism and poverty and war. His comedy helped us live through and make it through the psychic trauma. He was a genius. He was brilliant. His comedy was not mere buffoonery. It gave us backbone.

And when you listen to Dick Gregory’s comedy, you were not hearing a performer, but a prophet. You know the prophets of the Bible were political satirists. When Jeremiah put iron yoke around his neck to show the nation how foolish it was to do wrong, he was being a comedic satirist. It was comedic, it was satirical genius, when Jesus said to the hypocrites of his day, “When you try to be religious on the outside, but you hurt people on the inside, it’s just like having graves that you make real white, but inside of them they’re full of dead men’s bones.” When Jesus, in his day, said to the hypocrites, “You try to be religious, but you leave undone love, mercy and justice.” That’s comedic genius. And Dick Gregory was prophetic.

In fact, I want to channel my inner Dick Gregory. If Dick was commenting today, he might just say, “You know, president kissed black babies in Texas the other day. And some say he’s not a racist or a white supremacist. Well,” Dick might say, “we don’t need to remember the Alamo. We need to remember the okey-doke.” Because when you kiss a black baby in Texas while you’re trying to take babies’ healthcare in D.C.; when you kiss a black baby in Texas, but you’re stealing their voting rights in D.C.; when you kiss a baby or a brown baby in Texas, but you’re stealing their immigrant rights in D.C.—that is the okey-doke.

Or—or if I was to channel my inner Dick Gregory, I can hear him saying to some parts of white America, “We poor black folk and white folks has better come together and stop voting for these people lying to you about tax cuts and this extremism, when all they’re going to do is give more tax cuts to the greedy. You better learn how to work with black folks and brown folks, because when they get all your money and give it to the corporation, and you lose your jobs and can’t pay your light bill, just remember, we all black in the dark.” I’m just saying.

Dick Gregory—Dick Gregory’s comedy was prophetic. It cut to the truth, challenged lies, exposed racism as a form of societal insanity and made a fool of Jim Crow. He wasn’t performing, y’all. He was preaching. He made you want to leave the comedy club and get in the fight for justice.

ANNOUNCER: When our mothers and fathers decide to change the world, and they do, their places in history are cemented, and they’re among our most honored and revered legends. Picking up the mantle to continue the fight for justice are the children of the way makers and freedom fighters we hold so dear. So please put your hands together to welcome Rain Pryor, the daughter of Richard Pryor.

RAIN PRYOR: I am honored to be here and share in this day of celebration of our newest ancestor, Baba Dick Gregory. I remember the first three books my father ever gave me: Revolutionary Suicide, Huey P. Newton; Malcolm X; and Nigger. I was to read them and understand them well. Today, I can feel the ase of our ancestors. I can feel the ase of his family. I can the ase of all the admirers that are here. Baba Dick Gregory, prolific activist, wielding truth like kings wield swords, his words poignant, funny, painful, awakening, joyous, like that of ancient griots who float on ancestral drums heard in the rhythm of our hearts.

Baba Gregory was a part of my prior life, since I was old enough to understand and listen with a whole heart to the stories that made our eyes water and our sides split from masterful and master-filled lips that poured out truth libations, truths that were soul food, truths that were a map so we could live by their words. Baba Gregory would tell me, “Drink truth wisely, to choose your words like the great ancestral wordsmiths without getting drunk on its lies, told about us and told about them. Be who you say. It don’t matter what the theys have to say. Be your purity.”

So, today, as we honor our newest iconic ancestor and stand with the Gregory family, let us all remember what the real meaning of carrying the legacy means. Carrying the legacy is not for us to become. It’s not for us to morph into. It’s not for us to imitate their greatness. The legacy is to always speak our highest truth and become better than their greatness, better than what they carved out, etched and breathed into this life. It is to recall their spirit and those of the ancestors and keep them lifted in our actions as we become the change they sought, as we become the words that they wrote. Legacy is what runs through our veins and every manifestation that we touch. As Baba would have wanted, let us celebrate and raise up his living legacies, so that they can keep growing their wings. And as we say in my tradition, when magic touches both Earth and sky, aseyo.

ANNOUNCER: Reena Evers, daughter of Medgar Evers.

REENA EVERS-EVERETTE: Though they were not blood brothers, my father and Dick Gregory were brothers of the spiritual part. They connected on the intellectual level. They connected emotionally, especially when he came to our home in Jackson, Mississippi. And welcome back, Mark, if you ever go back to Jackson.

I remember the times of heated discussions and peals of laughter, because my father had a wicked sense of humor, and Dick Gregory brought out every wicked strain he had. And I just remember there was one time that they had a heated discussion over the N-word and where it was appropriate and how to use it and how to own it or disown it.

I found out later, in my twenties, when at one function that we attended with Dick Gregory, he came up to me and said, “Girl.” And I said, “I’m here. I’m here.” “Come here. Sit down.” “Yes, sir.” “Sit down. Come here. Y’all just leave us alone.” Because other people were around. And he said, “I want to tell you about your dad. And I want to tell you the promise I made him. I’m your godfather.” And I said, “What?” He said, “I promised him I would protect you, and I would help you move up in life. And that’s not moving up financially. That’s spiritual. That’s understanding what humanity is all about.” So, I have special memories of laughter, but always of knowledge, always of feeling from the heart, determination to make things right.

ANNOUNCER: Martin Luther King III, the son of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

MARTIN LUTHER KING III: He’s been a friend, really, to a lot of us. But he was a mentor to me, like a father figure, having lost my father at 10 years old, not having an opportunity to have adult conversations, but having the opportunity to have many with Dick Gregory. Many of those words, those deeds, I will never forget.

I think it’s very interesting that when Dick Gregory transitioned on that day in August, that on that same day, in the state where his children were raised and wife lives, in Massachusetts, there was the largest demonstration for peace and justice and human rights, on the day that he went home to live with God. I think it’s very interesting that just yesterday in the city of St. Louis, where Dick Gregory was born, that there were protesters protesting about the death of an African American who had been killed by police. And what probably went unnoticed was most of those protesters were white Americans. Even they realize that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

ANNOUNCER: Ilyasah Shabazz, the daughter of Malcolm X.

ILYASAH SHABAZZ: On behalf of my five sisters, I am humbled and honored to be here with you on this special day, as we celebrate the life of this extraordinary man, Baba Dick Gregory. Much like our fathers, Dick Gregory stood up to the power structure to reclaim truth and justice for his people. And when it was time to clarify who took Brother Malcolm’s life, it was Dick Gregory who rose to the occasion. And when it was time to clarify who assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King, it was Dick Gregory who rose to the occasion. He raised his voice for Malcolm and Dr. King and Medgar Evers and all of the others who were slain by bullies, by bigots, because they could not do so for themselves. When this new generation of powerful voices reminded the world that black lives matter, it was yet again Baba Dick Gregory who stood by them and spoke truth to power, whether you liked him or not.

We know that Dick Gregory was a comedian, an intellectual, and we know that he was funny. But what was so extraordinary about him is his willingness to share a story, but not just any story, an engaging story that informs, entertains and empowers his listeners. It was his ability to criticize us because he loved us. And like my father, he saw himself in us, misinformed and miseducated.

And so, shortly after my mother passed away in 1997, my sisters and I attended a gathering with distinctive African-American leaders, Maya Angelou, Aunt Coretta, Dick Gregory amongst them. And I was sitting quiet, and Dick Gregory came over to me and started talking. He said, “Ilyasah, have I ever told you about my magic glasses?” He said, “One day I was just walking in the forest, minding my own goddamn business, and I saw something glistening in the grass. So I bent down to get a closer look, and it looked like magic. It was a pair of glasses that illuminated light. But before I could touch these eyeglasses,” he said, “a spirit surrounded me. And the spirit said, 'Dick, don't pick up those glasses, because if you do, you’ll see images that will consume you, pains and injustices your stomach will not contain. Your heart will pound through your head, and there will be no turning back. Criminal sins of injustice committed against humanity.’ It said, 'Looking through these glasses will change the course of your career and require you to act and share the gospel.'”

Dick Gregory explained that meeting my father acted as a lens, which identified what he could do in this quest. You see, before Malcolm’s life was taken from us, he said, at the heart of our plight was not race, but economic injustice. And Dick Gregory said, “We must ensure the economic system is just and fair, or the masses of our people will continue to remain trapped and lingering on the periphery of economic justice and opportunity.”

ANNOUNCER: The inimitable Congresswoman Maxine Waters.

REP. MAXINE WATERS: We’re all here to celebrate Dick’s life and to pay tribute to his extraordinary contributions, not only to his family and his friends, but to our society, to this country, to the world. And today, you have all heard over and over again about all of his tremendous and awesome talent. You’ve heard about his genius. You’ve heard, of course, and you know about his civil rights advocacy, his politics, his humor, his wisdom, vision and uncanny ability to dissect personalities, events, national and international problems and occurrences.

I have sat with Dick for hours, and he would come with stacks of newspapers from all over the world. And we would talk—no, he would talk, and I would listen. And he would explain to me what was really going on in the world, in his own fashion. And he taught me to look twice at people. He taught me to pay attention, because he said, “You can’t always pay attention to what they say. It’s what they do.”

And so, I listened, I paid attention. And because of that, it has brought me to a time and place in my life where I’ve taken off the gloves. I’ve decided that I have no fear. I’ve decided that I don’t want to be safe. I’m not looking for who likes me and who does not like me. It’s time for all of us to walk in the walk of Dick Gregory. Did you like him? Did you love him? Did you care about him? If you liked him, if you loved him, if you care about him, you’ve got to stop being weak. You’ve got to stop speaking that which you don’t mean. You’ve got to stop skinning and grinning. It’s time to stand up and deal with the problems of this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Maxine Waters, speaking Saturday at the City of Praise Family Ministries in Landover, Maryland, as she addressed thousands, among so many others, at the celebration of the life of legendary comedian and human rights activist Dick Gregory, who passed away on August 19th at the age of 84. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. Among those who honored him, Stevie Wonder.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Stevie Wonder, singing at Dick Gregory’s Celebration of Life last Saturday.

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