In His own words
AMY GOODMAN: Today, a special broadcast. We remember the pioneering comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory. He died on Saturday in Washington, D.C., at the age of 84. In the early 1960s 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, quote, “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,” 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’re just holding this meeting because they want to duck the draft,” they will always think of little petty things to say. But I’ll tell you one thing: I’m not against armies, as long as it’s the army that’s going to come in after a tornado and help clean up. I’m not against the army if it’s the type of army that’s going to go around the world and distribute food to everyone. But I’d love to ask the boys in Washington, D.C., how a Negro can stand up and say he’s nonviolent—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 men. Nonviolence means 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announced, 18 months ago, that I was a presidential candidate as a write-in, because I feel that the two-party system is obsolete.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 one-and-a-half 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 own 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 smoked and drank heavily. Then he began a public fast, starting Thanksgiving Day, to protest the war in Vietnam. Forty 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, D.C. During the Iran hostage crisis, Dick Gregory traveled to Tehran in an effort to free the hostages, and he traveled to 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 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’ll hear from Dick Gregory in his own words. Again, Dick Gregory died at the age of 84 in Washington, D.C. Stay with us.
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, D.C. I spoke to Dick Gregory many times. We’re going to go back, though, first, to 2002, when we were in our firehouse studios in downtown Manhattan.
DICK GREGORY: You know, when you think about what happened on September the 11th of last year, the number one problem confronting America—if there’s never another act of terrorism—if this country stays as frightened as it is, it cannot survive. I mean, I never understood what Roosevelt meant when he said, “Nothing to fear but fear itself.” I’ve been married 43 years, and the biggest problem I have with my wife Lillian, when I first got married, is scared. She could can’t handle debt.
“When we gonna pay Sears and Roebuck?”
“You act like we’ve got some money. We don’t have no money. And when I get me some money, Sears and Roebuck not my first priority.”
Well, but what—look, Sears knew I wasn’t going to pay for that stuff when I got it. On the back of the application, they said, “Who gonna 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 said, “Baby, what’s wrong?”
“They did it! They did it! Here it is: final notice. Final notice!”
I looked at it. Final notice. “Hmm, thank God we won’t be hearing from them no more.”
You know, you don’t have to worry. Listen, I have a brother that’s so worried, he called me the other day, he said, “They’re about to repossess my car. What must I do?” Don’t park in front of the house. It’s just simple. Don’t worry.
And for those of you out there, those bill collectors? Look, I don’t know how many of you are aware of the fact that 60 percent 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 say, “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 him I’m not here.” How are you going to tell a child to lie and then tell them one day, “Never lie to me”?
You know, you go to the phone. “Dick Gregory?”
“Yeah, this is Dick.”
They don’t know what to do. You see, they’ve been trained that you’re going to say you’re not there. And when you say you’re there, they run back—they run back to the manual: What do you say when they say they’re there? He comes back. “This is not you.”
I said, “Boy, how old are you?”
“Twenty-two 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: Ph.D.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. I mean, if you look at NBC, CBS, ABC, in 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 are you going to take something from—I’ve got a cousin in Kansas City, Missouri. He have 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. And they was in the backyard, OK?
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’ve got to listen to black folk, because sometimes they be saying stuff that sound good, but they be talking about y’all. For instance, black-on-black crime. Ask anybody in the black community, they’ll say, “Oh, we’re tired of black folk killing black folk.” Now, they didn’t say they was tired of black folks killing. They said they’re tired of black folks killing black folks. Then who be left? You know, 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 killing Italians in Italy? You kill where you live. And if 98 percent 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 want to talk about black-on-black crime? Like I say, 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 makes 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 percent of all homicides in America is caused by friends or relatives. And 96 percent of all homicides in America is caused from arguments, not breaking and entry. So we don’t need more locks on our door, we need locks on our attitude.
So when you look at fear—and, you know, 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 didn’t understand that fear and God do not occupy the same space. And because of the non-fear that the King and that nonviolent movement have, I was able to lose mine.
And so, when you stop and think—I’m 70 years old. When I was a youngster, we celebrated Negro History Week. Now we celebrate Black Month. Now, tell me that’s not progress. Because when—you know when they’re getting ready to give us a month, it be that month with all them days missing. I mean, I didn’t expect a 31 dayer, but I was like wiped out when they laid February on us, because 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 the 2nd of this year, I was in Saint Louis. I’m doing this radio show. The white dude said, “Brother Greg, today is Groundhog Day. What do you think will happen if the groundhog sees his shadow?”
So I said, “Man, back up. I don’t play that groundhog.”
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’re 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?”
Oh, he got nervous. “No, no, no. What does it mean?”
“It means six more weeks of basketball, chump.”
And then we moved from February the 2nd to February the 14th, which is not just Valentime Day, but Saint—huh? Saint! I mean, that’s the only day on the calendar that’s called “Saint.” You know how many p...