By Gary A. Johnson (Posted August 20, 2017)
My first memory of Dick Gregory was from my father. I was probably around 8 years old and remember Dick Gregory as a comedian. I first saw him on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” A few years later my father gave me a book by Gregory titled “Nigger.” Throughout the years, I followed Gregory’s career on both television and radio. Gregory co-hosted a show with Radio One’s Cathy Hughes on WOL-1450 am in Washington, DC for years and he served as a guest on other Radio One shows.
Gregory was one of the first black comedians to find mainstream success with white audiences in the early 1960s. He rose from an impoverished childhood in St. Louis to become a celebrated satirist who deftly commented upon racial divisions at the dawn of the civil rights movement. He began performing comedy while in the Army, but got his first big break in 1961, with a 15-minute tryout at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club in Chicago.
The big comedy show was The Tonight Show with Jack Paar where “white comics could sit on the couch; a black comic couldn’t,” Gregory said to the news program. As the story goes, Jack Paar’s producer called Gregory with an invitation to appear on his new show, The Jack Paar Program, and Dick Gregory hung up the telephone.
Gregory summed up the story on CBS’s 48 Hours in 2017: “Hung up! And then the phone rang again. It’s Jack Paar. ‘Dick Gregory, this is Mr. Paar. How come you don’t wanna work my show?’ I said, ‘ ‘Cause the Negroes never sit down.’ ‘Well, come on in, I’ll let you sit down.’ And that’s how it happened. I came in, did my act, went to sit on the couch. It was sitting on the couch that made my salary grow in three weeks from $250 working seven days a week to $5,000 a night.”
Mr. Gregory was very active in the civil rights movement in the 1960’s. He was also an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. He also ran for president in 1968 as the Peace and Freedom party candidate after Alabama governor George Wallace, an avowed segregationist, entered the race. President Richard Nixon won the election, but Dick Gregory received 50,000 write-in votes.
In 1964, Gregory released his autobiography Nigger, about his experiences with America’s color line, starting in boyhood; it has since sold more than 7 million copies. In response to his mother’s objection over the incendiary title, he wrote in the foreword, “Whenever you hear the word ‘nigger,’ you’ll know they’re advertising my book.”
Throughout his life, Dick Gregory became an outspoken advocate for world hunger, capital punishment, women’s rights and of course for black people.
Gregory became very interested in health and wellness, particularly vegetarianism and nutrition. He adopted a diet of raw fruits and vegetables and launched “Dick Gregory’s Slim-Safe Bahamian Diet,” a very profitable weight-loss program. The business later failed due to conflicts with his business partners.
You can’t talk about Dick Gregory without talking about his with conspiracy theories in connection with the John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinations and his skepticism about the official U.S. report concerning the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C.: “One thing I know is that the official government story of those events, as well as what took place that day at the Pentagon, is just that, a story. This story is not the truth, but far from it.”
Dick Gregory is ranked at No. 81 on Comedy Central’s list of the 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time. I had the privilege of being one of the producers of a comedy show in 2009 at D.A.R. Constitution Hall in Washington, DC. Dick Gregory was the headliner with comedians Paul Mooney (Chappelle Show) and Franklin Ajaye (from the movie “Car Wash”) opening the show.
Many people don’t know that Dick Gregory opened the door for black comedians to perform in white nightclubs and on national television. Among his many honors as an entertainer is a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Every time I met Mr. Gregory he was educating me about something or someone from slavery to Micheal Jackson. He was always sharing his knowledge and wisdom. I admit, some of what he shared about slavery and the origin of certain words and phrases were quite shocking at the time. Let’s just say he was a very powerful personality. Once he put his arm around you, there was no letting go or getting away. You were going to hear that story whether you wanted to or not.
Dick Gregory was a national treasure and I was honored to have met him. His body of work speaks for itself. Rest in peace.