“I never learned hate at home, or shame. I had to go to school for that.”
On August 19, 2017, we lost a hero of activism and one of the great comedians of the century. Richard Gregory, aged 84, passed away due to congestive heart failure, after suffering from a bacterial infection in previous weeks.
Gregory was best known for his fervent activism, and for being able to convey humor in the most deplorable situations. A prominent member of the civil rights movement, he has been actively touring and speaking even in the last couple of years before his death. Throughout his lifetime, he was also a conspiracy theorist, health guru, writer, college lecturer, entrepreneur, and social critic.
Comedy Legend, Civil Rights Hero
Gregory started his career in comedy while serving in the military in the 1950s, after which he headed to Chicago to be a stand up comedian. He performed at clubs across the city–even opening his own venue for a short time–and broke through barriers of segregation time after time.
His performances were never just about making people laugh. Most of his routines called out truths that weren’t acknowledged, about racism, war, politics, and equality. Because beyond being a comedian, Gregory was a true activist, too.
He saw social activism as a higher calling, and was passionate about being a part of it, from the very first demonstration he joined, in 1962, for black voting rights in Mississippi. Arrested dozens of times, beaten, ridiculed, and later shot, Gregory committed himself to the cause.
In an interview in 2003, he described one experience of integration:
“We tried to integrate a restaurant, and they said, `We don’t serve colored folk here,’ and I said, `Well, I don’t eat colored folk nowhere. Bring me some pork chops.’ And then Ku Klux Klan come in, and the woman say, `We don’t have no pork chops,’ so I say, `Well, bring me a whole fried chicken.’ And then the Klan walked up to me when they put that whole fried chicken in front of me, and they say, `Whatever you do to that chicken, boy, we’re going to do to you.’ So I opened up its legs and kissed it in the rump and tell you all, `Be my guest.’ “
Hunger strikes were a frequent part of his protests, too. He went without solid food for two and a half years when speaking out against the Vietnam War. And in 2000 he went on a hunger strike to protest police brutality, long before outrage at that injustice had neared its current height. In his later years, he would become a vegetarian, and frequently spoke up for animal rights, too.
In 1968, Dick Gregory ran for president (half-seriously) and earned more than 47,000 votes. We don’t know about you, but that makes him one more past presidential candidate we would trade our current president for in a heartbeat.
Wisdom For Now
In memory of Richard Claxton Gregory, here are some of his most apt words of wisdom, that we need to hear now, perhaps more than ever before.
In the United States, the Constitution is a health chart left by the Founding Fathers which shows whether or not the body politic is in good health. If the national body is found to be in poor health, the Founding Fathers also left a prescription for the restoration of health called the Declaration of Independence.
In America, with all of its evils and faults, you can still reach through the forest and see the sun. But we don’t know yet whether that sun is rising or setting for our country.
If all you can do is judge a person by their appearance, because you don’t have the spirit to judge someone from within, you’re in trouble.
The only good thing about the good old days is they’re gone.
Because I’m a civil rights activist, I’m also an animal rights activist. Animals and humans suffer and die alike. Violence causes the same pain, the same spilling of blood, the same stench of death, the same arrogant, cruel and vicious taking of life. We shouldn’t be part of it.
We used to root for the Indians against the cavalry, because we didn’t think it was fair in the history books that when the cavalry won it was a great victory, and when the Indians won it was a massacre.
Life isn’t a race, it’s a relay
Dick Gregory had also taken to using social media to stay connected with activism in his later years. In March 2016, he posted a heartfelt message about human kindness, and continuing the fight for progress. In part, it said:
We have made immeasurable progress that cannot be debated. That said, we still have a long way to go. I have no desire to see this all the way through, the dreams I dreamed about 60 years ago have definitively been realized… To the young folks of all ethnicities I say #staywoke not as a catchphrase but as a lifestyle.
As I approach my 85th revolution around the sun this year, I wonder why has it been so difficult for humankind to be kind. So difficult to be loving and lovable. For my militant brothers and sisters, please don’t misconstrue loving and lovable to be weak or submissive. Love will always be triumphant over hate. I know I will not be here forever, nor do I desire to be. I have seen progress like most cannot appreciate because they were not there to bear witness. I dedicated my life to the movement. By doing so, I never thought I’d still be here. So many of my friends are not here. They were cut down by a system of hatred and evil. If they were here, they’d see the progress that I see. The reality is far from perfect, but profoundly better than what daily reality was for my generation. Young folks if you are wise you would talk less and spend more time listening to the elders who saw evil up front and personal everyday. #howlong I’ve been asking this question for over 40 years! How long before we realize our Universal God given potential? We have made immeasurable progress that cannot be debated. That said, we still have a long way to go. I have no desire to see this all the way through, the dreams I dreamed about 60 years ago have definitively been realized. To the young folks of all ethnicities I say #staywoke not as a catchphrase but as a lifestyle. Most of the things that are killing us are in our minds and our daily routines. The way we think, the “food” we eat and the water we drink or so often don’t drink. While so many go out and protest the small evils, the big evils are ever present and welcomed into our homes. From the top to bottom of my heart I say #staywoke Love you to life, DIck Gregory
Rest in peace, Dick Gregory.
Love will always be triumphant over hate. – Dick Gregory