Dick Gregory, comedian and activist, died Saturday at the age of 84. This weekend’s death of Jerry Lewis crowded out much of the coverage that Gregory should have received — the media can only cope with one death per profession, it seems. And let’s face it, as a man of radical politics, someone who participated in all of the civil rights struggles from the 1960s to the present, Gregory posed a problem for the mainstream media that made it easy for them to ignore him.
Gregory started out as a stand-up comedian in the 1950s, doing lots of conventionally structured observational humor. Almost immediately, however, he began inserting more barbed jokes about racism in America, such as an early 1960s routine about his admiration for baseball player Willie Mays as the rare black man “who can shake a stick at a white man and not cause a riot.” Gregory’s jokes could sneak up on you with their synthesis of humor and quick commentary: “I wouldn’t mind paying my income tax if I knew it was going to a friendly country.”
By the late ’60s, Gregory had, along with much of the left, become radicalized, taking part in civil rights protests, helping to register black voters in the South, and eventually running for political office. His comedy became political speech as much as it was entertainment, but let’s be clear: Gregory was a superb performer. Most of the time, he spoke in a languid drawl that drew you in with its conversational intimacy. When he got revved up over a point he felt passionate about, his voice rose to an urgent sting, buzzing in your ears.
A couple of months ago, CBS Sunday Morning did a profile of Gregory that was so mild, so discreet, so carefully designed not to upset CBS viewers, you could watch it and walk away utterly unenlightened as to what Gregory was like in his prime, how ferocious his articulation about American racism could be.
Much better is this clip of Gregory in a comedy club in the 1960s, puffing on a cigarette in a relaxed manner, dressed in a cool sharkskin suit and emitting sharp, funny jabs.
In 1968, Gregory ran for president as the write-in candidate of the Freedom and Peace Party. I was a kid at the time, and it’s a measure of Gregory’s persuasiveness that he compelled a white youth living in suburban Connecticut to buy a copy of the book containing his political platform, Write Me In!, and I wore my lapel button reading “Write In Dick Gregory President For Peace in ’68” everywhere I went, much to the annoyance of my father.
About a year ago, I bought a vinyl copy of the three-record set The Best of Dick Gregory at a used-record store. This anthology, released in 1977, gathered much of Gregory’s best material, and some of it now sounds startlingly timely. At a moment when people around the country are discussing how to grapple with our sorry racial history, here is Dick Gregory doing an eight-minute comedy bit titled “White Racist Institutions,” as well as tossing out jokes about how, as a child, he refused to celebrate the George Washington’s Birthday school holiday because “Washington was a slave master, so I broke into the [closed] school to study all day.”
Dick Gregory is probably destined to remain a comedian’s comedian when he is remembered by non-black audiences at all. But the totality of his achievement — as a performer, an activist, and an explicator of the vexed topic of race — is huge.