Dick Gregory 1932-2017 | THE POLITICUS

Dick Gregory 1932-2017

Dick Gregory for President, 1968
 
"Repression is more detrimental for the oppressor
than it is for the oppressed."
 
Dick Gregory, May 4, 1971, Kent State University
 
Dick Gregory died late Saturday night at a hospital in Washington, DC. Give me some time to get used to this. At this moment, everybody is talking about the death of Jerry Lewis. I, too, loved Jerry Lewis, but we need to talk about Dick Gregory.
 
It was one of those mountaintop moments that will never leave me. Early one afternoon in the Spring of 1985, I was working on a job in front of a building on Fifth Avenue between 57th and 58th Streets in merrie olde Manhattan. I was on lunch break listening to the Howard Stern program on the radio. This was at a time when Howard could still be appreciated by anyone with an IQ above a bag of rancid mangoes.  I was about to dig into a tuna fish sandwich when Howard announced his next guest - who turned out to be my hero: Dick Gregory! 

I had discovered him as a teenager at Goshen Central High School. One day in  my freshman year, I was perusing the biography section in the school's library when I came upon an autobiography with the most peculiar title: "nigger" (in lower case). I picked it up with a minor curiosity and probably wouldn't have given it a second glance had the author of this book with the provocative title not been a comedian. I was a comedy nerd even then. I checked the book out and have been hooked  on Dick Gregory ever since.
 
As luck would have it, on that fine Spring day in 1985, I was parked directly across the street from the building in which the Stern program was broadcast from. When the interview ended, I got out of the van, walked across the street, entered the lobby, and patiently waited. After about ten minutes or so, one of the doors of the four elevators opened and he emerged: MY HERO IN THE FREAKIN' FLESH, BABY!

This was not my first encounter with Dick Gregory - or "Greg", as his friends called him. In the late seventies, while reading yet another of the several books by him that I read over the years, he mentioned in the closing chapter that he and his wife Lillian (and their ten children) had settled into a beautiful farmhouse on Long Pond Road in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Just out of youthful curiosity,  I called the Plymouth directory assistance to see if he might be listed. To my utter astonishment - he was! At that point in my life, I didn't dream I would ever have the opportunity to meet Dick Gregory, but come hell or high water, I was determined to speak to him.

After a couple of tries, I was able to get through to the great man. I don't remember the conversation except telling him before hanging up how much I loved and appreciated him and all he had done for America. It was a sweet conversation, I wish I had recorded it. I never phoned him again because  I didn't want to be a pest; the poor guy had enough on his mind, what with trying to save the world and all.

A couple of years later, in the early months of 1980 (or was it the late months of 1979?) I was a student at Orange County Community College, or as I used to call it, "The University of Middletown, NY". I got myself on a committee that booked entertainment and lecturers to appear at OCCC. Of course my first and only thought for a lecture was Dick Gregory. I worked out all the logistics and booked him to appear. I even made arrangements for he and his brother (who was traveling with him as an assistant) to spend the night in the guest room of my parents' house in Goshen. Alas, it was not to be. On this night, the east coast was whacked by a killer blizzard, and Greg got snowed-in in New York City. It was one of the biggest disappointments of my life. To my credit, I was able to get Leon Redbone to appear a few weeks later. All was again right with the world.

You've got to give this man credit. In 1959, at a time when African American comedians performed exclusively to black audiences via what was known as "The Chitlin Circuit", Dick Gregory was the first of them to "cross over" into the white mainstream. Although at that time America was still resistant to change, the world of Comedy (always ahead of the curve) was changing at what seemed to be the speed of light. It was no longer a market inhabited exclusively by tired and stale old vaudevillians like Milton Berle and Henny Youngman. A new breed of smart and sophisticated comics were emerging in the repressed era of the 1950s, personified by performers like Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl. Dick took advantage of this new freedom and dove headfirst into it. 
 
It was the visionary Hugh Hefner (already a champion of the trailblazing and controversial Lenny) who booked Gregory for two weeks at the Playboy Club in Chicago where he was a sensation. From that moment on, he was cooking: appearing in the top rooms and the most influential television programs in the nation. He even acted in movies. This was a performer that was reaching a star even he could not have dreamed of. Dick Gregory was reaching heights no one might have foreseen. And yet,  that was not enough. There was something happening in America that could not be ignored. Dick Gregory wanted to be a part of a higher calling.

BUSTED!

He began to take part in the marches that were overwhelming the consciousness of the United Staes in the early sixties, particularly in the south. He was a decided part of a movement that was altering the United States, and that would change it forever. He spent more and more time in jail. He was shot in the le during the Watts riots of 1965. He earned an FBI file that was would have been the envy of anyone honored to find themselves (myself included) on J. Edgar Hoover's shit list. It is my opinion that anyone who did not have a file during Hoover's reign of corruption and stupidity, is not a person  whose biography is worth taking note of.

Think about it:

John Lennon, The Berrigan Brothers, Eleanor Roosevelt, Charlie Chaplin, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Abbie Hoffman, Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Bobby Kennedy - they all had files in Hoover's FBI. That is a noble and honored fraternity. I'D LOVE A PIECE OF THAT, MAN!

That is the reason I would have trusted Dick Gregory with my life. I still do, you know. I really do. I always will. I love Dick Gregory. That's never going to change.

He purposely destroyed his career as an entertainer. He wanted - I suspect he needed - to stand for something more noble and righteous. I once said that if you ever find yourselves in Heaven, the only two entertainers you're likely to encounter will be Laurel and Hardy. I need to amend that statement" Dick Gregory will be there.

He became the conscience of America, enduring hunger strikes - some of which went on for months - in order to call attention to the immoral war in Vietnam. He became an outspoken vegetarian and nutritionist whose books on diet and healthy living are still in print and referred to decades later.

The Lion In Winter

I loved Dick Gregory.

When we met in the lobby of the building on Fifth Avenue, I introduced myself and told him of our scant encounters. He smiled and told me that he remembered me. I've always flattered myself into believing that he really did, but I suppose he was only being polite. Dick Gregory was that kind of man.

We walked together on Fifth Avenue and turned right on West 57th Street. As we walked for several blocks, we talked about America. We talked about our hopes and fears. It was then that I realized that he wasn't the icon I had always imagined him to be. Dick Gregory was just like me. I was ashamed that it had taken me that long to figure it out.

When we reached the corner of Broadway and 57th , we went on our separate ways. Dick Gregory headed south on Broadway, and I ducked into the Coliseum Bookstore.

I felt blessed. I still do. We're going to miss you, Greg.

Tom Degan
Goshen, NY

SUGGESTED READING:

nigger
by Dick Gregory

This book changed my life.

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