Editor’s Note: Iconic activist and comedian Dick Gregory died August 19, 2017 at the age of 84, according to his family. We are republishing this story about Gregory’s visit to the Twin Cities in honor of his memory and legacy. The story was originally published in November of 2014.
‘Library of Black radical thought’ shared insights on sundry topics during his recent visit
Dick Gregory first started out as a comedian while serving in the military in the mid-1950s and had become one of the nation’s most popular Black comics — the first to regularly appear on television’s The Tonight Show — before turning to social activism at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. He ran for U.S. president as a write-in candidate in 1968 and has demonstrated over many human rights issues, including the first of several hunger strikes in 1980 when he tried to help negotiate the U.S. hostages’ release in Iran.
A cancer survivor, the 82-year-old Gregory spoke at the University of Minnesota during a Twin Cities visit in late October. Following are excerpts of his remarks during a panel discussion held at the school’s Humphrey Center and a short, exclusive MSR interview.
“I hear people say if you want to hide something from a Black person, put it in a book,” said Gregory half joking, drawing on his comedic roots to make a point. Too many Blacks either forgot or ignore our history, or else allow others to either tell us what happened or distort what happened.
“The New York Times was lying when Malcolm [X] stopped the riot in New York on a Sunday [back in the early 1960s] in front of the Brooklyn police [station],” explained Gregory of the event that was later featured in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. He remembers the newspaper’s editorial “on what happened and how Malcolm pulled up and people listened to him. He raised his hand and everything stopped. You know how they ended [the editorial]? ‘No Negro should have that kind of power.’”
Almost three decades later, he cited how mainstream media underestimated the 1995 Million Man March. “One-point-nine million Black men [attended the event in Washington, D.C.], but we were worried about numbers the Washington Post gave us.”
Too many Black people unfortunately either have forgotten or ignore the historical contributions of the Black church, which during the Jim Crow South often provided much needed relief, said Gregory. “Some people badmouth the church, but not me because I know what the church meant to us. It had nothing to do with religion, but it had something to do with [the fact that] Black folk couldn’t use toilets or get a simple drink.”
Contrary to misinformation by non-Blacks and even some Blacks themselves, young people always were in the forefront of change for Black folk, noted Gregory. “The Civil Rights Movement was the most powerful movement in the history of the planet… The young folk were training [to lead it], but we were told there weren’t that many.”
But the activist charged the so-called Black establishment has not properly trained the current generation to lead as they should. “These youngsters see us and don’t want to be like us. They wonder, ‘Why [did] you take that? Why [did] you tolerate that?’”
However, the longtime vegetarian “since 67,” says he is very concerned about what today’s youth, or for that matter all people, are eating and drinking. He strongly questions why the ingredients are described in some foods with “about 16 words, of which 15 you can’t pronounce. We didn’t have those chemicals and additives in our food when we were growing up. They put it in your soda and your water. This is a problem — we don’t know what it’s doing to [people].”
Black America must move forward, advised Gregory: “Black folk for the last 110 years have spent a bigger percentage of their pay than White folk have. We never lived in a community — a community is where you control the cops, control the banks, control your finance, control the hospitals. That’s a community.”
The MSR also talked to several of the students who Gregory spent time with after his on-campus appearance.
“I was really grateful…to hear everything he was saying,” said U of M Senior Amber Jones, who spoke about the importance “to connect to those like him, so that we can be equipped with all of the knowledge, all of the tools, all of the armor to survive in an institution like this.”
“I think it was an amazing pleasure to hear this man who gives so much wisdom,” said Matthew Ogbeifun after meeting Gregory. “He knows a lot about things I would not have thought or known.”
“He’s been on the battlefield for a long time,” added Dane Verret. “Brother Gregory is a library of radical Black thought.”
Gregory said he is also worried about the mindset of too many Black folk. “You must understand the America you’re living in, a nation so filthy and ungodly. Every now and then, when you let filth last so long, you get immune to it.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.