Dick Gregory: Comedian and Activist

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Edgy satire is a staple of comedy today. We tune in to hear it on late-night television, and Saturday Night Live exploited the genre making tons of comics household names over the last 42 years. There is even a satirist in the United States Senate, Landslide Al Franken. I like to call him “Landslide Al” because he won his first Senate seat by 313 votes in Minnesota. I guess I have to plead guilty to embracing satire too.

Senator Franken made the transition from SNL satire writer and comedian to working on Capitol Hill seamlessly. He eschewed comedy for most of his first term to make folks comfortable with him as a serious lawmaker. Now that he has proven his worth and developed his new trade (he won his second term in a true landslide), he is letting his biting wit mix with the serious business of the Senate and he has become even more effective.

Sen. Franken and all those late-night comedians have a small cache of comics to thank for introducing and perfecting satire as a comedic genre. One of them was Dick Gregory, who died on August 19 at age 84. Gregory is credited as being the first black comedian to be widely accepted by white audiences. In 1961 Playboy magnate Hugh Hefner hired Gregory to fill in for Professor Irwin Corey to do a show at the Chicago Mansion. Gregory got on stage and didn’t leave. For the next three years he was a headliner at the Playboy Club entertaining mostly white audiences. His political commentary fit right in with Lenny Bruce, Richard Prior and others of the day–much of it eschewed by “polite society.”

After securing his fame, Gregory decided to use what he earned rather than expand his rising star. He didn’t leave his comic edge behind, but he chose to use his fame and talent in the name of political activism. In the midst of the Civil Rights movement and MLK’s efforts for nonviolent protest, Gregory could be spotted on picket lines, or his name seen on a police blotter for being arrested due to involvement. In 1963 he spoke in Selma, Alabama for two hours during Freedom Day, which was the introduction of northern student volunteers to the cause of voter registration.

In 1967, Gregory made a serious run for mayor of Chicago, challenging long-time Mayor Richard Daley in the middle of Daley’s 21-year reign. Then came a mostly publicity stunt run for president in 1968. He ran on the Freedom Peace Party ticket with several different vice presidential running mates. He garnered over 47,000 votes including one from a kindred spirit, Hunter S. Thompson.

Between the 1963 Freedom Day rally and the 1967 run for mayor, Dick Gregory became my answer to the oft posted social media question: “Who is the most famous person you ever met?”

In 1965 the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), headed by Dr. King, organized SCOPE. There were tons of alphabet soup groups during the Civil Rights movement. SCOPE stands for Summer Community Organization and Political Education. It was a cousin of the CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) efforts the year before to get mostly white, northern, college students to come south and help keep the media focused on the cause. Their mission was to help get voters registered and teach civics fundamentals to those who were being denied.

CORE was successful, but infamous during the summer of 1964, because of the deaths of three of its workers; James Chaney, Andy Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner, at the hands of the KKK. It was Dick Gregory who collected reward money and kept the pressure on the FBI to finally locate the bodies of the missing volunteers after 44 days of searching.

SCOPE hoped to replicate the success without the loss of life during the summer of 1965. SCLC organized SCOPE and Dick Gregory got involved by rounding up a group of students to participate from around the Chicago area.

I was a 19 year-old college sophomore and, after much soul searching and nerve steeling, a friend and I volunteered. We gathered in Chicago in early June for a bus trip to Atlanta for training and subsequent weeks of service. We were privileged to meet, sit and chat with Mr. Gregory on our bus excursion. If anyone is interested, I relate our story in my historical novel, First You Hear Thunder–this has been a roundabout way to get in a book plug.

Dick Gregory went on to more activism and advocating for causes after voter registration issues were settled in our favor when President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act in August after our summer of Freedom Worker protest. Gregory’s later causes included protesting the Vietnam War and lending his voice to getting the hostages released from Iran in 1980.

His death may have gone unnoticed by many, as Mr. Gregory wasn’t pursuing his stage career as much as he was working for resolutions to causes he believed in from behind the scenes. I’m happy to share these few words on his behalf and hope they stir some recognition of the unselfish life pursuit of working for others that Dick Gregory modeled.

Comments

  1. Wayne Benenson says:

    Thanks for he tribute. I also met him, along w/ a few thousand students, when he visited Berkeley in 1968 when he was running for President. I couldn’t decide if it was a stump speech or stand-up routine. I temember considering the irony of a working politician making fun of the government

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