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Dick Gregory, RIP

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The great Dick Gregory, one of the most amazing living Americans, has died. Gregory was both a pioneering comedian who influenced people such as Richard Pryor and someone who was at the front lines of civil rights and racial justice for decades.

More than a comedian, Mr. Gregory was driven by an unwavering commitment to front-line activism. He marched in Selma, Ala., was jailed in Birmingham, Ala., was shot in the leg during the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles, and had counted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X — all slain campaigning for their cause — among his confidants. At one protest, Mr. Gregory said, his pregnant wife was kicked in the stomach by a white sheriff.

Mr. Gregory’s entertainment career increasingly took a back seat to his activism.

Protesting de facto school segregation, Mr. Gregory led a march in 1965 from Chicago’s City Hall to the home of Mayor Richard J. Daley. He and several dozen peaceful protesters were arrested for disorderly conduct — they had refused to obey police orders to disperse, and hundreds of hecklers began pelting them with rocks and eggs.

In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed those convictions, saying there was no evidence they were responsible for the violence.

Amid that legal case, Mr. Gregory ran for mayor against Daley in 1967 and for U.S. president in 1968 as a write-in candidate with the left-wing Freedom and Peace Party, campaigning against what he saw as rampant political corruption in the two major parties.

Mr. Gregory said he was appalled that the Democratic Party would host its national convention that year in Chicago, a city where black demonstrators were regularly brutalized by the police. The convention drew a large contingent of white anti-Vietnam protesters, and the outbreak of violence that ensued prompted Mr. Gregory to take mordant glee in the melee.

“I was at home watching it on TV, and I fell on the floor and laughed,” he told GQ magazine in 2008. “My wife said, ‘What’s funny?’ And I said, ‘The whole world is gonna change. White folks are gonna see white folks beating white folks.’ ”

I’ve long felt that Gregory was never remembered publicly as the absolutely critical figure he was during the 1960s. Given that he was still alive, I was always surprised there was not more of a conscious attempt to raise his standing as one of the last living civil rights movement heroes. It’s not as if he disappeared. He was still giving talks until the end and had to postpone an upcoming Atlanta gig because of his illness that did him in. On the other hand, his embrace of conspiracy theories perhaps made him a bit of a tough sell in the present.

Anyway, Gregory is a great loss. Not too many of the leaders from the 1960s era civil rights movement left, outside of the aging SNCC core.

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  • hellslittlestangel

    I’ve long felt that Gregory was never remembered publicly as the absolutely critical figure he was during the 1960s.

    I

    Sadly, his reputation became a bit tarnished by his breatharianism crackpottery. It’s a shame because he really was a great man.

    • nixnutz

      Was he the one who went to war against drug paraphernalia too? I think that’s how I first heard of him.

      • Cervantes

        I actually met him, he visited my college, gave a talk, then met informally with students in the student center. I’m sorry to have to tell you that he was a complete nut job. He spouted all kinds of insane conspiracy theories about the CIA. He also claimed that Jonestown was a hoax. I don’t remember all of it but he was a full-on loon. That’s probably why you stopped hearing about him.

  • I’m with Erik, that my remembrance of him is as a peripheral actor and comedian, and mainly a civil rights activist. And that THERE is where he mad his mark as a human.

  • Steve Johnson

    Shit, I thought he was the other Darrin.

  • ..but at least he never turned into Scott Adams….

  • William Heaphy

    “I was always surprised there was not more of a conscious attempt to raise his standing as one of the last living civil rights movement heroes.”

    He became a weight-loss huckster and a 9/11-truther crank. Yes, he was a cool guy back in the day, but you’re honestly puzzled that people stopped paying attention?

    • Judas Peckerwood

      “Where have you gone Ralph Nader, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you…”

      Full disclosure: I used to work closely with Ralph in the nonprofit world before he lost his shit. I’ve never been so disappointed in anyone, ever.

    • Mac the Knife

      I first heard of him when I was a kid watching House Party and a character asks someone to “fix me some of that Dick Gregory”.

      It was shortly thereafter that I learned he was something other than a punchline. It would be sad (and by sad, I mean fantastic) if this happens to Ralph Nader.

  • hellslittlestangel

    The Bizarro world Jill Stein.

  • Barry Freed

    We’ve lost a giant. RIP.

  • jpgray

    He had the best summation of the insurance contract imaginable. From memory:

    “You’re betting them that something horrible will happen. They’re betting you that it won’t. And you’re hoping that you lose.”

  • RaisedByTigers
  • Thom

    I saw him circa 1971 at an anti Vietnam war rally at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco. He was on one of his fasts then, thin as a rail. I knew he was a comedian, but really knew of him only as an activist at that time (I was in high school).

    • Likewise for me, except maybe 1972, auditorium at MIT, graduate school; and not a rally, just him on stage. I assume the event had been advertised as anti-war, but all I remember was his pitch for fasting and ???.

  • Mac the Knife

    “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.’

    “About then these three cousins come in, you know the ones I mean, Klu, Klucks, and Klan, and they say ‘Boy, we’re giving you fair warning. Anything you do to that chicken, we’re going to do to you.’ So I put down my knife and fork, and I picked up that chicken and I kissed it.”

  • Happy Jack

    what he saw as rampant political corruption in the two major parties

    While John Lewis joined the Democrats and worked for change, some became cranks and Bernie Bros. No mystery as to why he’s not revered.

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