Dick Gregory was born in St. Louis in 1932. While in the Army, Gregory's commanding officers noticed he was a joker and encouraged him to take his comedic skills to the military talent show, which he won several times. After completing his service, he worked at the Chicago Playboy Club, where Hugh Hefner was impressed by Gregory's ability to wow white audiences. Here was the portion that impressed Hef:
Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I understand there are a good many Southerners in the room tonight. I know the South very well. I spent twenty years there one night.
Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant and this white waitress came up to me and said, "We don't serve colored people here." I said, "That's all right. I don't eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken."
Then these three white boys came up to me and said, "Boy, we're givin' you fair warnin'. 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. Then I said, "Line up, boys!"
The Playboy Club launched him to national television notoriety in the early-60s as one of the first comics to find success in front of black and white audiences. In 1964, Gregory published an autobiography, controversially titled, Nigger, which sold 4 million copies. Gregory's comedic and personal style was inflammatory and uncompromising, titillating many, shocking others and angering some. Around the same time, Gregory became active in the civil rights movement and participated in many of the most significant marches and demonstrations of the era.
Here is a speech he gave in Birmingham in 1963 on the day more people got arrested than any other day in the entire history of the civil rights movement: Speech at St. John's Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama, 1963
Ultimately, Gregory also became an ardent opponent of the war in Vietnam and championed numerous other progressive causes. In 1967, Gregory ran an unsuccessful campaign for Mayor of Chicago against notorious political boss, Richard Daley.
In 1968, Dick Gregory again tried his hand at politics, this time as the Presidential nominee for the Freedom & Peace Party a splinter group from the Peace & Freedom Party, a party that emerged out of the civil rights and anti-war movements. Interestingly, the Peace & Freedom Party elected Eldridge Cleaver in '68, the incendiary Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party. During the campaign, Gregory supporters at the Operation Breadbasket office in Chicago created fake dollar bills with Gregory's face on them. They are really funny. Here it is (click to enlarge):
Not surprisingly, the feds didn't have much of a sense of humor about the whole thing, particularly after some made it into circulation, but the stunt did gain the activist some easy publicity at a time when many were more than willing to stick it to The Man. It also landed him on Nixon's master list of political opponents! Gregory earned more than 47,000 votes in the election, or .06% of the total, including one from hunter S. Thompson. He finished just behind the Socialist Labor Party candidate, but ahead of Prohibition Party and Communist Party candidates. Sadly, George Wallace, the racist Democratic Governor of Alabama and godfather of modern conservatism, received about 210 times more votes (almost 10 million!) than Gregory...
The same year as the campaign, Gregory wrote, Write Me In! The book is really funny and interesting and worth a read, even today. Here are a few of the things he put forth:
• Gregory argued that the one qualification we should seek in a Presidential candidate is "a sensitivity to human need."
• He encouraged citizens to smash the two party system. Gregory wrote that he did not vote in the 1964 Presidential election because "I refused to be the victim of having to choose between the lesser of two evils."
• In a passage that speaks forcefully to our current international predicament, he wrote, "America speaks with pride of the fruits of democracy and advocates democracy for the rest of the world. Yet we go all over the world trying to force democracy upon people at gunpoint."
• Gregory argued that the U.S. Constitution had never been fully implemented and suggested, therefore, that before we talk about changing it we actually see how life in America would change if we followed the Constitution. He wrote, "I have a dream and a vision of seeing the Constitution of the United States implemented in full for the first time in American history."
• Gregory promised that his administration would give American citizens what he termed, "The Clean Society." He wrote that one of his first acts as Prez would be to set aside half of his Presidential salary as a reward for any information leading to his arrest and conviction for wrongdoing in office. Further he proposed to place into escrow $10,000 for each Senator and Congressman also as a reward for information of wrong doing in office. This combined sum (around $5 million dollars he estimated) was small in comparison to the federal government's annual budget. Yet the rewards for taking political corruption seriously were profound.
• Gregory also proposed a corporate tax on "excess-profits."
• He also wrote, "I will propose legislation to allow American taxpayers to bring suit against the federal government challenging the spending of a sizable portion of the national budget for a possibly illegal war." And, " Any time American troops are being used overseas as a result of orders by the commander-in-chief, the question of the constitutionality of such action should be immediately raised."
• Gregory pledged to respect international law and order and to create renewed respect for the United Nations. He wrote, "I will urge a redistribution of power in the UN so that every nation has an equal voice [...] " Further he proposes that the UN flag become as recognizable as corporate logos, the flag announcing to people the world over that "colors, religions and political orientations place no restriction upon membership in the human family."
• In an interesting passage, he argued, "America must re-evaluate what is meant by developing 'stronger' nations. A nation that is well equipped militarily, yet plagued with disease, hunger and ignorance, is not really strong."
• Gregory wanted to see America taking leadership in eliminating world hunger and he proposed to have elementary school children contribute a penny a week and for adults to give up one meal each week with the proceeds from both to be used to feed the hungry.
• Gregory proposed using tax rebates as incentives for companies which establish fair employment practices.
• Gregory suggested reforms for fire and police departments as well as the criminal justice system and the courts. "As President," he wrote, "I will make every effort to free the court system from political ties. I will seek federal legislation to rule out the concept of judgeship by political appointment."
• Finally, Gregory advocated the elimination of capital punishment. He sought a criminal justice system that accomplished rehabilitation of the criminal rather than merely punishment.
Yeah, that is pretty amazing, isn't it??!!!
Gregory has continued to fight the good fight since 1968, going on numerous hunger strikes for various causes. On July 21, 1979, Gregory appeared at the Amandla Festival, otherwise know as the "Festival of Unity," held at Harvard Stadium in Boston. The idea behind the event was to show support for freedom across southern Africa and to encourage racial healing in Boston, a city torn by racial discord. Bob Marley, Patti LaBelle and Eddie Palmieri, and others, also performed. In 1980, he attempted to negotiate the release of American hostages in Iran. He and his former running mate, Mark Lane, wrote a fascinating book about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Code Name Zorro, which argued that James Earle Ray did not act alone in that historic tragedy.
More recently, Gregory has gotten a little far out at times, advocating a variety of conspiracy theories and a radical health diet that he claims saved him from cancer.
In one of the more bizarre recent episodes, Michael Jackson's father asked Gregory to advise Michael on his diet during his 2005 trial for child molestation. On June 4 of that year, Gregory brought a blood-circulating machine to Jackson's house, but Jackson refused to use it.
Here I am with Dick Gregory on September 29, 2007, in Milwaukee! Seriosuly.
What the heck am I doing with Dick Gregory? Well, we were both participating in the "March On Milwaukee" 40th anniversary celebration of the historic open housing campaign there. I am writing a book about the civil rights movement in Milwaukee and spoke at the conference. Gregory was an important activist in that movement. In 1968, he praised the Movement in Milwaukee, which many called "the last stand for an non-violent, interracial, church-based movement," and which was led by a white Catholic priest named Fr. James Groppi, for showing that Black Power was "more an attitude than a color." Mr. Gregory was amazingly kind and gracious to everyone throughout the weekend... and funny as hell. Holy Moses, this guy can let the jokes fly. He's still got the edge, too. He seemed to me to be one of those people that is simultaneously brilliant and a little mad; many of the great ones are, after all. Provocative ideas come fast and furious...
Here's to you, Mr. Gregory! Thanks for blazing a trail and fighting for justice...