Negroes in Birmingham
Birmingham, Alabama - May 20, 1963
He might have chosen to stay home and protect his lucrative career as a nationally acclaimed
comedian, but Dick Gregory was ready to go to jail in Birmingham, Alabama. May 6, 1963,
marked the day more nonviolent civil rights protestors were arrested than any other day in
American history. As demonstrators took on a city with a reputation as "the Bastille of
Gregory flew in from Chicago to help. He led the first group of what became a wave of children
and teenagers marching out of church doors to get arrested for protesting peacefully for equal
rights. More than 3,300 people were already in Birmingham's jails when thousands more took
part in what became known as "The Children's March." Birmingham's notorious police chief,
Bull Connor, turned high-pressure fire hoses and snarling police dogs loose on the orderly
protestors. The news coverage sparked international outrage.1
After spending four days in jail, Gregory flew home to Chicago, then returned to Birmingham
about a week later to address a Monday night mass meeting with the story of his arrest. Gregory
was a veteran of civil rights protests. In 1961, he was asked by voting rights activist Medgar
Evers to speak at a rally in Jackson, Mississippi. He lent his hand and his humor to other groups
Gregory was born in 1932 in St. Louis, where he grew up poor, especially after his father
deserted his mother and five siblings. Gregory attended public schools and won a track
scholarship to Southern Illinois University, which he attended until he was drafted in 1954.
Gregory made a name for himself in Army talent shows, and after his discharge in 1956, he quit
college to pursue a career in comedy. His first big break came at the Chicago Playboy Club when
he filled in for an ailing white actor and, defying the odds, entertained a group of Southern
businessmen with his racially barbed routine.
At the height of the Birmingham protests, Gregory gave confidential advice to Attorney General
Robert F. Kennedy on how the Kennedy administration could work with civil rights leaders. It
led to a secret New York meeting between RFK and a group of African American leaders, artists,
and others organized by author James Baldwin.3
Gregory remained active in politics and civil rights. In 1967, he fasted for forty days to protest
the Vietnam War. He also ran for mayor of Chicago and the U.S. presidency. In the 1970s and
1980s, Gregory became a widely quoted advocate of dieting and nutrition.
I'll tell you one thing, it sure is nice being out of that prison over there. Lot of people asked me
when I went back to Chicago last night, they said, "Well how are the Negroes in Birmingham
taking it? What did they act like? What did they look like?" I said, "Man, I got off a plane at
10:30, arrived at the motel at 11 and by one o'clock I was in jail." [laughter] So I know what you
all mean when you refer to the good old days. I asked one guy, "What is the 'good old days'?"
and he said, "10 B.C. and 15 B.C." And I said, "Baby, you're not that old" and he said, "Nah, I
mean 10, 15 years before Bull Connor got here."
Man they had so many Negroes in jail over there, the day I was there, when you looked out the
window and see one of them walking around free, you knew he was a tourist. I got back to
Chicago last night and a guy said, "Well how would you describe the prison scene?" and I said,
"Baby, just wall to wall us."
So I don't know, really, when you stop to think about it. That was some mighty horrible food
they were giving us over there. First couple of days, it taste bad and look bad and after that it
tasted like home cooking. [laughter] Matter of fact, it got so good the third day it got so good
that I asked one of the guards for the recipe.
Of course you know, really, I don't mind going to jail myself, I just hate to see Martin Luther
King in jail. For various reasons: one, when the final day get here, he is going to have a hard
time trying to explain to the boss upstairs how he spent more time in jail than he did in the pulpit.
[laughter] When I read in the paper in Chicago that they had him in jail on Good Friday, I said
that's good. And I was praying and hoping when they put him in Good Friday they had checked
back there Easter Sunday morning and he would have been gone. That would have shook up a lot
of people, wouldn't it?
I don't know how much faith you have in newspapers, but I read an article in the paper a couple
days ago, where the Russians - did you see this, they gave it a lot of space - the Russians claim
they found Hitler's head. Well I want to tell you that's not true. You want to find Hitler's head,
just look right up above Bull Connor's shoulders. [laughter] To be honest with you, I don't know
why you call him 'Bull Connor.' Just say bull, that's half of it. Couple of them hep sisters over
there in the corner.
I don't know, when you stop and think about it, I guess little by little when you look around, it
kind of looks like we're doing alright. I read in the paper not too long ago, they picked the first
Negro astronaut. That shows you so much pressure is being put on Washington, these cats just
reach back and th...