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

In a special broadcast today, we remember legendary comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, who passed away on Saturday in Washington, DC 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. In a special broadcast today, we remember legendary comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, who passed away on Saturday in Washington, DC 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.

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today, a special broadcast. We remember the pioneering comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory. He died on Saturday in Washington, DC, at the age of 84. In the early 1960’s 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, “We lost a king. There will 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 just holding this meeting because they want to duck the draft. They will always think of little petty things to say. But I tell you one thing, I’m not against armies as long as this the army that’s going to come in after a tornado and help clean up. I’m not against the Army if the type of Army that is going to go around the world and distribute food to everyone. But, I’d love to ask the boys in Washington, DC how a Negro and standing up and say, he’s non violent, 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 man, nonviolence mean 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 1.5 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 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 smoke and drank heavily. Then he began a public fast, starting Thanksgiving Day, to protest the war in Vietnam. 40 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, DC During the Iran hostage crisis, Dick Gregory traveled to Tehran in an effort to free the hostages and he 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 to — 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 we’ll hear from Dick Gregory in his own words. Again, Dick Gregory died at the age of 84 in Washington, DC Stay with us.

(Music 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, DC. I spoke to Dick Gregory many times. We’re going to go back, though, first to 2002 when we were in our firehouse studio’s in downtown Manhattan.

DICK GREGORY: When you think about what on happened September 11 of last year, the number one problem confronting America, there is never another act of terrorism if this country stays as frightened as it is, cannot survive. I mean, I never understood what Roosevelt meant when he said, “nothing to fear but fear itself.” I been married 43 years and the biggest problem i have with my wife, literally when I first got married, is scared. She could can’t handle debt. “When we going to pay Sears and Roebuck? You act like we got some money. We don’t have no money. And when I get me some money, Sears and Roebuck now my first priority” Well, look, Sears knew I wasn’t gonna pay for that stuff when I got it. On the back of the application they said who’s going to 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 asked her what’s wrong. “They did it. They did it. Here it is final notice. Final notice.” I looked at it. Final notice. Hm. Thank God we won’t be hearing from them no more. You don’t have to worry. Listen, I have a brother that’s so worried, he called me the other day, he said, “they about to repossess my car. What must I do?” Don’t park in front of the house. Just simple. Don’t worry. And for those of you out there, those book collectors, look, I don’t know how many of you aware of the fact that 60% 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 said, “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 them I’m not here.” How you going to tell a child to lie and then tell them one day “never lie to me”? You go to the phone, “Dick Greg?” “Yeah, this is Dick.” They don’t know what to do. You see, they’ve been trained that you going to say you’re not there. And when you say you there, they run back to the manual. “What do you say when they say they there?” He comes back, “this is not you.” I said, “boy, how old are you?” “22 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 people; Phd’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. If you look at NBC, CBS, ABC and 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 you going to something from — I got a cousin in Kansas City, Missouri, he had 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. They was in the backyard. 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 got to listen to black folks because sometimes they be saying stuff that sound good, but they be talking about you all. For instance, black on black crime. Ask anybody and they say, we tired of black folk killing black folk. Now they didn’t say they was tired of killing. They said they were not tired of black folks killing black folks. Then who be left? 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 is killing Italians in Italy? You kill where you live. And if 98% 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 going to talk about black on black crime? Like I said, 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 make 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% of all homicides in America is caused by friends or relatives. And 96% of all homicides in America is caused from arguments, not breaking and entering. So, we don’t need more locks on our doors, we need locks on our attitude.

So, when you look at fear — 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 did not understand that fear and God do not occupy the same space. And because of the non-fear that the king and that nonviolent movement had, I was able to lose mine. And so, when you stop and think, I’m 70 years old. When I was the youngster, we celebrated Negro history week. Now we celebrate Black Month. Now, tell me that’s not progress. Because when you know they getting ready to give us a month, and be that month with all them days missing. I mean, I did not expect a 31 day’er, but I was like wiped out when they laid February on us. ‘Cause 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 2 of this year, I was in Saint Louis. The white dude said, “Brother Greg, today is Groundhog Day. What do you think’ll happen if the groundhog see it’s shadow?” So I said, “man, back up. I don’t play that ground—-” 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 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?” He got nervous. “No, no, no, what does it mean?” “It means six more weeks of basketball, chump.” And then we moved from February 2 to February 14. Which is not just Valentine’s Day, but saint — saint. I mean, that is the only day on the calendar that is called “saint.”