Reflections on Brown
BOND: Dick Gregory, welcome to Explorations in Black Leadership.
GREGORY: Thank you.
BOND: I'm going to begin with a few questions about the decision in Brown v. the Board of Education in 1954. You were three years out of high school when this decision was handed down.
GREGORY: May the 17th.
BOND: At the time, what did you think it was going to mean?
GREGORY: I didn't. The shock -- I mean, the legis... -- the world was stunned, you know what it was like. Nothing in your thought pattern went past what was happening. I mean people who couldn't read and write, people who -- who didn't -- just something. I mean, World War III couldn't have gotten more drama than that day. You just didn't know. I mean, it never even led to that. In other words, if you wake up one day and it's like 150 degrees, you're so busy dealing with that, you're not dealing with the fact that there's going to be snow this winter. But that was just the -- and everyone was talking and -- and can you imagine if the news media would have been then like it is now? I mean, remember, this was just, you know, you just had the three networks and there wasn't no such thing as no hourly news and -- and then all the talk shows. But you knew something had happened. We didn't know what it was, mainly because most folks never saw this coming down the pike, you know, I mean -- only the folks who were really up on the whole struggle --
BOND: So it was a big surprise to you?
GREGORY: To everybody. I never knew there was a case going on, you know. And then, bip, it came down and you just -- it was just there that day.
BOND: And what did you think would happen as a result of this case?
GREGORY: I hadn't thought, I just hadn't -- you remember, you see, I lived in a rigid, segregated pattern, not to the extent where you had to walk out the house and worry about being lynched. But our pattern in St. Louis was more so rigid than many places in the South ‘cause in the South you had restaurants you could go to that were segregated. You had movies you could go to that you could sit -- in St. Louis you couldn't go to no white restaurants. You couldn't go to no white movies. I mean, rigidly segregated. If you went downtown to the department stores and to buy a hat or pair of shoes, you couldn't try them on. You just had to buy them in size -- and you couldn't bring them back. And so it was that whole kind of pattern. I was born in 1932, and I went to college in 1952, a white college. And it was the first time in my life I didn't have to call white folk "Mr." or "Mrs." Now, there was no demand that you do, but we was always taught it's safer, you know?
BOND: To go along --
GREGORY: To behave yourselves. And it was the first time white folks had to call me by my name and that just? You know, I mean you're not, "Hey you!" "Hey boy!" "Hey coon!" "Nigger this," "Nigger that." And so that was the background that I had come up in. And so, just reading the headlines, you added more to it because at that time I didn't know that white folks had no control over the press. I just thought we didn't, but I didn't think white folks would tolerate the misinformation. I didn't think the white folks would tolerate the fact that Henry Kissinger was indicted in Paris, France, for murder and that wasn't in American newspapers. And let me put this in -- it came out of the Hague Court pertaining to it what happened in South America. And whatever left-wing people been killed. Well, they found documents when they started arresting them guys to prove that they was carrying out his orders. Well, I don't want to discuss that, but the reason I'm bringing it up, not one American newspaper touched that until nine months later the Village Voice ran a front page story to say, "How can you try Henry Kissinger for murder?" So coming in a rigid segregated pattern, I used to laugh at the some of the stuff in black newspapers, but I didn't think that white newspapers could be so outrageous with switching facts. So when you saw the front page of all the headlines, you knew something big was about to happen.
Influence of Brown
BOND: Now when you look back at it, fifty years in the future, today, at -- what does it seem to have meant to you over the passage of those fifty years? What did the Brown decision mean, what does it mean today?
GREGORY: It brought us to where we are now, that America is a better place. You know -- you know, in the old days people used to have a system where they'd ring the bell to let you know dinner is served. You know, and everybody would jump up and you'd wait for the bell instead of saying, "At five o'clock today we're going to eat." That was like the bell ringing that there's a new menu. Not it might not be what I wanted, but to the folks that didn't want it at all, that was horror for them. You see it had more effect on white folks than black folks.
BOND: How so?
GREGORY: Because at all once, all of the stuff that they had conjured up in their head about Negroes, all at once it now -- "You mean they going to be next to my children?" "Yeah, they're going to be next to your children, if the Army got to take a gun and do it." And it never dawned on them that, "Wait a minute, if these Negroes is as dumb as we know they are, and my white school is as good as I know it is, then good schools will flunk out dumb people."
But now anytime you're telling me that a dumb black child of mine is going to mess up your school -- your school, in the first place, but -- so all of that ignorance, all of that meanness, all of that bitterness, which you never had to think about -- and then all at once for years after slavery, where black folks had just gone along, there were no rumbles.
And so, it was just this quiet atmosphere with all this mess going on underneath. So now all at once -- for instance, I used to look at a bus with white children, passed by me, taking them to a good white school. And then -- and they just said "bussing" then. And then when I had to get on the bus, they changed the word to "forced bussing." Then you start seeing the meanness and the hatred and then you know that you're in for a struggle ‘cause at the time I didn't know there was a thing called white supremacy and most of the white folks that participate in all that hate, they don't know anything about it.
Because if all black folk disappeared from America, the poor white folk would catch hell. ‘Cause somebody going to be this boy's nigger.
Influential People: Mother
BOND: I want to talk about your early life and people who influenced you. Now, I know your mother was a big, big influence on you and typically mothers and dads are. But what influence did your mother have on you?
GREGORY: Well, I didn't realize the influence she had on me would be the same influence that King had.
GREGORY: She loved everybody. She believed in God. She didn't believe in hatred or bitterness. She was always laughing, always happy. Sad in her heart because of my father, the guy she loved -- and he was never home. As a matter of fact, he was a cook, he ran on the road. Matter of fact during the Depression, my daddy made about $8,000 a year. If there was ten master cooks in the world, he was between one and five. Matter of fact, when he -- if he got off the boat in England, it was a violation for him not to report to Buckingham Palace to see if they needed his services for a party or something.
But we never saw none of that. He was a gambler, a hustler. And with all of that, she just, you know, she raised us in an atmosphere -- and I look back now and I would ask certain questions. "Honor your mother and father." I'll say, "I'll never honor him!" She said, "You have to!" I said, "No, I'll honor my mother and father if they're honorable." And I didn't ask her the question then, but if she was alive I'd ask her now, "Should Hitler's children honor him?"
BOND: What would she say?
GREGORY: If I saw a six-year-old girl get raped by a man, and he took an axe and chopped ‘em up, should his children honor him? She would say "Yeah, because of -- the Bible said." That's how she justified wars, man. I mean I couldn't understand a woman that didn't believe in killing, but I say, "Well, how do you justify war, Mom?" "The Bible said there'll be wars and rumors of war."
BOND: Oh, yes, okay.
GREGORY: I mean pure ignorance, you know. But she also said to me, "You're not poor. You're just busted, you're just broke." And then she explained to me and to the rest of the children, "To be poor is a mental condition and to be broke is a temporary situation." And so that kind of hit me and stuck with me. I know now that poverty and spirituality don't go together, so anybody who's in poverty, you don't know God. That ain't my law, it's a universal law. I mean -- I mean, there's certain things that nobody have control over and this is the problem with racism, with prejudice that affects you in segregation because it kind of molds my mindset. And then I have to spend 90 percent of my time overcoming that.
I remember my mother used to say, "You've got to be twice as good as a white boy." As I just grew up, hated that, and I would never have permitted that to my children because that's like saying to a black child, "When you go to a white store and get change for a dollar, they only will give you thirty-eight cents. But when you go to a black store, you demand a full dollar's change for a dollar." Something wrong?
BOND: Yeah, there is.
GREGORY: -- with that. My mother taught me -- let me tell you how this works now. Let's say I'm going to make you two cops. I'm going to make you a white detective then black detective. My mother had taught us, the boys, "Behave yourselves and that cop pull you over, don't talk too fast, don't talk too to slow." Now, nobody had a car, so it wasn't something for you to put your hands -- just -- she taught us that. "Yes, sir." "No, sir."
But she never taught me how to act when a black cop pulled me over. So when you as black detective pulled, we gave you some lip. "Nigger, how come you ain't out busting dope? What -- ?" You understand what I'm saying, how that works? She gave us instructions how to behave when a white nigger-hating cop that would kill you. But she never told me to behave when someone who look like me, who felt like me. And so these are the hang-ups that you --
And this is what Brown, that decision meant to me. For the first time you say, "We gonna build a new institution here," and then come in with that sledgehammer and crack that first crack, that's what that was. Now, we don't know what the building's going to look like, but this area had been cracked. And when you put a crack in here, phew, things change. Because it's a mindset that changes, not something for one day. It's that mindset that changes. I can walk up in the middle of the night, with my eyes closed, and know how to find my toilet at home because of the mindset.
Influence of Racial Discrimination
GREGORY: Now let me just tell you the NAACP'S role in my life and then how this tunes in to the '54 decision. I ran faster than anybody had ever run in the mile, especially a Negro because blacks had been convinced that the short races genetically was ours.
BOND: The sprints.
GREGORY: And the long races -- and so I was just waiting, my mother was so funny. My mother didn't know Richard Gregory, Dick Gregory was the same, because everybody in the black community knew me as Richard. When I broke through so big and the white press had to write, they started writing about Dick Gregory. So a lot of folks in the black community didn't know it was the same person.
And so I waited for the Scholastic Yearbook to come out where they list all the records. And I went down to the Board of Education and the superintendent's name Hickey -- we called him Mr. Hickey -- and, "Mr. Hickey is the Scholastic Yearbook out?" He says, "Yes." I said, "Could I see it?" And he said "Yes, you can have it." So he go get it, and I look through it and I find a mile and there's a white boy, out of New Jersey. So I said, "No, they must have a special place for my type." And I looked through, and I took every page of that book and looked, and I wasn't in it.
So Mr. Hickey was walking out and he said, "Dick, you still there?" and I said, "Yeah, I don't see my picture in it." He says, "Oh, you was at the Negro meet. It don't count." And so I looked at him and I'm crying. I said, "Mr. Hickey, we had white timers. Did they think the white timers lied?" He said "No, no, no. We know it was a record. The Negro meet don't count."
And I grabbed him and threw him to the floor. And I said, "Man, I was born poor -- " remember, I was born before welfare -- "Don't know who my daddy is, don't like my momma, don't like my family, but I just hate being poor and the conditions that we in. And then I do something that's never been done in the history of the planet and I don't get credit for it. I'm going to tell you something, I'll burn this town down to the ground before I let this happen." Well, he got up, cussed me out. By the time the police got there, I was gone.
I went to the NAACP, Mr. Wheeler, and I told him what happened. He said, "Well, we fixing to have a march." Now remember back then it wasn't even psychic to talk about integration?
GREGORY: We was talking about conditions of the schools, overcrowding. That school had been built a hundred and twenty-five years before Negroes got there for five hundred white students. We there now with 8,000 black students. Yeah. I mean you go to one class, man, with a hundred and thirty-five people. By the time the teacher finished checking the roll --
BOND: Yeah the class is over.
GREGORY: It's over. I'm in an English class and the band's practicing in the room next door with no acoustics to block out -- that was the conditions. And so I said to Mr. Wheeler, and I said, "Well, let's do this here. Negroes love meeting, and we got a strange law called a truancy law that says if you're a man you have to go to school ‘til you're twenty-one, if you're a boy, a woman eighteen." And I said, "So you know black folks, Negroes, don't have to live up to that. Nobody's going to jail. So let me go and organize these thugs, man, for Brother Greg, and tell them, 'Now you're going for overcrowded conditions, okay. I'm going because my record didn't count.' "
And so, the first day of school in September -- two weeks before I had gone all over St. Louis and organized and said, "The NAACP, we going to have a march. And we going to shut the system down, and we going to shut the three black high schools down. And we want you all to go register. And as long as you're under twenty-one, as a man, they got to register. And as long as you're under eighteen, as a woman.
"And the second day of school we want everybody to walk out and I want you all to shut them schools down for me and we'll all walk to this direction and where we'll meet up with the NAACP, and we'll march to the Board of Education. No stealing."
Now I say that because back then, you know, the Italian organ grinder? Well, that was basically stands and horse and buggies and -- and we said "No turning that over, no. This is not a good time, this is serious." And they loved me and we did that.
Now, let me tell you how important that was and how important I realized the power that white folks have. I get arrested. I get home and Douglas Wheat got me out. My momma cried, "Richard, a white man came by here and said you're a Communist." I said, "Momma, how do you spell Communist?" She said, "I don't know." I said "Momma, if that white boy would have came by here? Did he have a hat on?" She said, "Yes." Asked my sister, "Did he come in the house?" My sister said "Yeah." I said, "Did she make him take the hat off?" She said "No." You as a black could not walk in my house, my momma said, with a hat on. She thought that was the most dis[respectful] -- she'd ask Jesus to take the hat off. But not white folks. So I said, "Mom, if that white man would have walked in here smiling and said, 'Oh, Ms. Gregory you should be happy your son's a Communist,' you would have baked me a cake." So if ever he comes by here again, he better hope and pray you here, because if he come by -- " and I don't know if it was the FBI, she said it was FBI, who cares.
Now here's what happened. The next day -- oh, the press was so busy talking about there was no violence -- not that we'd ever had violence; nobody could believe that these many Negroes could be this orderly -- so that's what the white press -- it was editorials -- "Who is this Dick Gregory?" They gave me credit for all these thugs not taking nothing. And the police then, "We were shocked, but they'd better behave." So the next day we walked down, everybody's there, FBI, police, and Hickey walked up to me and pulled me over and said, "God dammit, boy, what do you want?" And, "I want my record to count." And he kind of smiled, he said, "What? Your record? That's why -- ?" "Yeah." So he said, "Just a minute." He made a phone call, he came back, he said, "If you can wait here for an hour, we'll take care of it." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "We passed an executive order, in Jefferson City -- was the state capitol -- to integrate cross country today."
GREGORY: Hear me now, watch this now. Now, you can't integrate cross country, [if you] don't integrate track, don't integrate basketball. I said, "Look -- " That day, now a funny thing happened, funny thing happened. All at once the white schools started saying, "Jesus Christ, if we got to compete against them, let us have them." So here's the deal that was cut. This was later. The deal that was cut was places like Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and little hick towns, they didn't have to obey by this, but they slipped the little law through that said Kansas City, Missouri, and St. Louis, Missouri, it was okay to integrate the schools for the athletes.
Now why is this important to your question? In the 1954 Supreme Court decision, to this day, the state of Missouri pride themselves that they had already integrated before the decision. That goes back to the NAACP and my march. Now let me tell you something else that was interesting. Because of the quality of coaches we had, it was that St. Louis, and that incident with the NAACP and Dick Gregory, that forced them to integrate the sports that created Arthur Ashe. Is that wild?
GREGORY: Arthur Ashe is from Virginia, right? Where Negroes could not play tennis with white folks. Now how many Negroes back then you...