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Comedian-Activist Dick Gregory Is Still Speaking His Truth
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
We'll speak to comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory about his life as a civil rights activist and legendary comedian. Gregory will talk about his activism during the tumultuous 1960s and what he continues to do to help people all over the world.
Dick Gregory, comedian and civil rights activist, will be speaking in San Diego on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011 at 7 p.m. at USD's Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice Theatre.
There's almost too much to the career of legendary comedian and political activist Dick Gregory. From performing at Hugh Hefner's Playboy club in the '60s to marching with Dr Martin Luther King Jr., to devising a detox diet for John Lennon. Dick Gregory seems to have been everywhere and done everything.
But what really separates Dick Gregory's career from anything our celebrity culture has ever seen, is his deep and unwavering commitment to speaking his truth to power. He has been shot, and threatened, ridiculed and has gone on hunger strikes in his 50 year career. And he's still speaking out for freedom and justice.
Dick Gregory, is a comedian and civil rights activist.
Transcript DisclaimerThis is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.
CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. There's almost too much to the career of ledge dear comedian and political activist Dick Gregory. From performing at Hugh Hefner's Playboy Club in the early 60s to marching with doctor Martin Luther King Jr., to devising a detox diet for John Lennon, Dick Gregory seems to have been everywhere and done everything. But what really separates Dick Gregory's career from anything our celebrity culture has ever seen is his deep and unwavering commitment to speaking his truth to power, he has been shot and threatened, ridiculed and has gone on hunger strikes in his 50-year career, and he's still speaking out for freedom and justice. He'll be in town this week at an event at the university of San Diego. It's a pleasure to welcome Dick Gregory to These Days. Good morning, sir, thanks for talking with us.
GREGORY: Thank you. Thank you, good morning, and a late happy new year to you.
CAVANAUGH: All right.
GREGORY: Oh, I love that introduction. I was looking around trying to see who you was talking about.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I tell ya, we're gonna invite our listeners to join the conversation. So if you have questions or comments for the acclaimed activist and comedian, Dick Gregory, give us a call, 1-888-895-5727. That's 1-888-895-KPBS. So like I said, you know, Mr. Gregory, you've done an awful lot. Let me take you back if I could to the beginning.
GREGORY: Yes, please do.
CAVANAUGH: Of your career.
CAVANAUGH: I've read that besides everything else you've done, you were the first black comedian playing to mixed race audiences and clubs back in the early 60s.
GREGORY: Right, yes.
CAVANAUGH: And I'm wondering, did the audience get you? Did they get your humor?
GREGORY: Yeah, first. Let me just say, before Hugh Hefner brought Dick Gregory into the Playboy club, a black comic was not permitted to work white night clubs in America. You could sing, you could dance. But you couldn't stand flat footed and talk to white folks. And Hefner was the first -- the interesting thing about Hefner, at that time about 80 percent of your nightclubs in America was owned by the mob. But you take a nice little, cute, untwist your arm person like Hugh Hefner to break that barrier down. But because the way it said was -- and out of that came not just Dick Gregory, it came Richard Pryor, Red Fox who had been working black night clubs all his life, Bill Cosby, and so when you think and see what happened out of that, Bill Cosby and Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor, we weren't the first that qualified. I mean, can you imagine, had that barrier been broken down a hundred years ago where we would be today in comedy? Think about all those folks that had that same rhythm, the same bit. I mean, Bill Cosby is the greatest story teller that ever lived.
GREGORY: And when you look at Richard Pryor, that's just genius plus. Eddie Murphy's movies had made more money than anybody in the history of Hollywood. So we just say thank you Hefner, thank you Hefner, and what a better time to thank him than black history month? And [CHECK AUDIO] when I was called it was called negro history week. Now we got a whole month! [CHECK AUDIO] and all them days missing. So our next move, we're gonna be pushing for a 31-dayer.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Dick Gregory, you know, people -- hip liberal people loved you, loved you at the start of your career. And then you started to get political.
CAVANAUGH: And how -- tell us how that affected your ability to get gigs and how you were perceived.
GREGORY: Well, first, it didn't affect me because I've always known from childhood that truth don't have to be validated by ignorance. And I'm 80 years old, I do about a hundred and 50 dates a year, what bothered me, not inside, was the fact that when that broke through and I was on the front cover of time magazine, I was the hottest thing, I still couldn't work the south. I mean, a comic that was 1 tenth as good as me could work the whole America if they were white.
GREGORY: So the fact that hue, and there were people who were friends, night club owners, who said well, we can't bring him in because of this, weigh can't bring him in because of that. But then the whole college university system opened up. And that was something new to the American public at the time. [CHECK AUDIO] everything opening up, from the movies to the -- you see, there is no money in stand up on stage doing comedy compared to how much money the writers make, okay?
GREGORY: So first African American comics broke into the whole white scene, then the writers [CHECK AUDIO] Ed Weinberger was one of my first writers. And he was just starting how to write. And my law was that you have to travel with me 24 hours a day, where I go, you go.
GREGORY: I go on the march, you go on the march because you got to write this stuff and I had to feel it. And so I had an African American guy, Jim Sanders and Ed Weinberg. Any time you see the bill Cosby show, you will see created by Ed Weinberger, and he went on to create Mary Tyler Moore, taxi. Of and I say that to say this year, that Bill Cosby had made a billion dollars with the reruns. If Bill Cosby as a comic had made a billion dollars, then Ed Weinberger had made 10 billion, that's why he's one of the richest guys in Hollywood. Of [CHECK AUDIO] that was because he was writing.
GREGORY: And so now, you know, when I -- without Hugh Hefner, there wouldn't have been a writing comic position for David Shapiro.
GREGORY: And so that's how it works. And then what I was able to do in the civil rights movement, oh, my God, that's where it happened.
CAVANAUGH: Let me stop you there. Because there's someone on the line who wants to speak with us.
CAVANAUGH: We're taking a call at 1-888-895-5727. LaVern is calling from San Diego. Good morning, LaVern, and welcome to These Days.
NEW SPEAKER: Hello, I just would like to say, I'm from Alabama, and my parents they talked a lot about you when I was a little girl. I probably would about 4 or 5 years old. And I was reading. And at that time, I read about a story when you were a little kid, and how your teacher had -- you didn't know that you were poor, and that your teacher had got money together and had embarrassed you in class because they got the money together for you. And that was the first time I heard about red dye 40. And I had ADHD as well. And so that's helped me out throughout my life.
GREGORY: Thank you.
NEW SPEAKER: Changed how I eat.
NEW SPEAKER: And how -- to be careful, to be health conscious.
CAVANAUGH: LaVern, thank you for that call.
GREGORY: Let me just say to you, miss, thank you and good morning to you. That story was kind of a little bit twisted. What it was that my mother had always taught us, we're not poor, we're just busted. To be poor is a mental condition, to be busted is a temporary situation. So that I was taking up money for poor children. So you pledged how much you was gonna bring that Friday. Remember now, back in those days, Friday was payday. So you made a pledge to the teacher on a Friday, and your mother or father gave you the money to bring on Friday. So I sit and I listen, and I know when it got to G the Gs, the teacher skipped me. So I'm glad, because I'm gonna wait to see how much the biggest pledge is, and I'm gonna pledge twice that much. [CHECK AUDIO] we're taking up this money for you and your kind. I'm in an all negro school. We didn't have no white folks in our school. And so I walked out and I said, I didn't understand what she want, you know? 'Cause I sold newspapers and I kept me a pocket full of money.
CAVANAUGH: Right. You weren't poor, you were just busted right?
GREGORY: Yeah. And that's what -- and then eventually IBM picked up that whole segment in my book, I'm not broke, I'm just busted. And then they did it 234 Braille, and when I got over to Iran during the hostage crisis, I found out that book was in Iranian, in Braille. So it's amazing how people can be touched by something like the lady said, and then she talked about -- you see, most of the conditions, we sit around, and I'ma say this for those of you all that's listening, I love you, I'm gonna go off another way. When you check and find out -- when I was coming up, now, y'all got to remember, I was born in 1932, right?
GREGORY: So when I was coming up, the older dudes in the block, you know, they take a woman out and they want to get her right for the hit, you slipped a little whiskey. She run to the -- [CHECK AUDIO] so we know that whiskey can change attitudes and affect your brain.
GREGORY: So all those red dyes number two, all those chemicals that are in the food, somebody told me, they said, I don't know what's wrong with their young ones today. When we was their age, we didn't have to lock no doors of I said, well, you didn't have nothing. When I was a little boy, we were so poor and raggedy, the only time a rat was in our house was when it was taking a short cut. [CHECK AUDIO].
CAVANAUGH: Dick Gregory, and I do want to talk to you a little bit more about nutrition because that's 11 of the things that you're most well known for, the fact that you eat this diet that's basically fruit and vegetables and --
GREGORY: And raw.
CAVANAUGH: And raw.
CAVANAUGH: And you've been on this 40 now, for accident like 40 years, right?
GREGORY: Yes, uh-huh.
CAVANAUGH: So how are you feeling?
GREGORY: I feel good, but remember you all have the number two zoo in America.
GREGORY: Number one is St. Louis.
CAVANAUGH: [CHECK AUDIO].
GREGORY: We got pretty ones. So what happened is that if you go to the zoo, they're eating raw food, huh?
GREGORY: They're eating one thing, they don't sit down and sit down and say I have to have seven course, right? And you go -- and so when you stop and think about raw and you -- let's say you go in a restaurant for lurch and get a fruit salad, that fruit salad has lost 80 percent of its strength if they don't make it right in front you. In order, if you cut your wrist right now, you'd bleed to death. [CHECK AUDIO] you can't see it, but it start it is bleeding. And all the heavy energy is gone by the time you get around to eating it. And so consequently, one of the horrors, I wrote the book Dick Gregory's natural diet for [CHECK AUDIO] and sent off a whole explosion, revolution, and it was difficult for me because I come up in this little community where we never had enough. And so good nutrition to me was whenever you liked, there was enough of it, and bad nutrition when it ran out before you got enough. And then I found out that we eatin' for taste and not for nutrition. And so that whole piece. And one of the horrors that -- when I come through, people was just beginning the vegetarians. And by the way, Hitler was a vegetarian, for all you vegetarians out there who think that's all it takes to be nice. I look at my vegetarian friends, and some of them's attitude, and I look at Doctor King. Doctor King would eat up everything in your zoo out there if it had barbecue sauce on it. [CHECK AUDIO] and yet I could not find a very peaceful, gentle, loving and kind person. So I'm not saying -- the whole body, the whole chemistry change when you don't poison it, and you don't pollute it, but you can also do the same thing with meanness and bitterness and hatefulness, and double-crossing. For instance, when you boil up your fish, that's the same way your heart looks inside your chest. Now, remember, when day one, when we was created on this planet by the creator, we was created before there was religion, we was created before there was Jesus or Buddha or Allah, or Mohammed, so this was here before religion. So one day we're gonna have to start giving a little emphasis to those folks out there that put us together. Now, if you had a whale in front of your house, and people from a hundred mile radius [CHECK AUDIO] came over and got water, that's the only water source they have, right, if I slip in there one night and poison the well, then those people gonna die, right?
GREGORY: Okay. Your heart pumps blood to every spot in your body. When you look at the research, they got research now electronically that they can see the blood coming into your eye lashes. Now, just like if I poison your well, it kills everything, once you put hatred and bitterness and meanness, and racism, and homophobic sexism into your heart, it poison every part of your body. Now, I didn't know that's what that I was talking about. And maybe they didn't know all my life, I heard people say love your am in. They never said love your mother or your friend. Because your friend don't create an atmosphere in your mind where you poison it for resentment. So it was that whole piece that you start looking at it, and start feeling. My wife will be 75 next year, I'll be 80. And I haven't got a hurt in my body. We don't have a prescription between the two of us because once I start understanding what my body was about, you know, if you go -- and one of the sad things about this economy, those of y'all that have dogs and pets, you know that the number one dog food was Alpo. Is Alpo. And so many folks have been reduced down now to eatin' dog food. If you go to the super market, go to the dog food section, and they've taken all the dog pictures off of Alpo. Because they know about 50 percent of their sales is for human consumption.
CAVANAUGH: Well, let me just tell everyone, I want to let everyone know that they're listening to comedian and activist Dick Gregory, these gonna be in town this weekend speaking at an event at the university of San Diego. And I just want to remind you if you have a question or a comment, you can give us a call at 1-888-895-5727. You know, I'd be happy to go back to nutrition because I know, I know how deep that is with you. But you know, let's talk for a couple minutes about Barack Obama.
CAVANAUGH: Now, you ran as a writing candidate for president back in 1968.
GREGORY: I was the first negro in the history of America -- in running for president of the United States [CHECK AUDIO].
GREGORY: [CHECK AUDIO] if Obama had not made it out the primary, I would have been still the first negro in the history to run for president.
CAVANAUGH: Exactly. Now, getting out of the primary, and actually being on the ballot.
GREGORY: That's right.
GREGORY: Now, if you go back to Obama, you have to go back to a guy named Jimmy Lee Jackson. Had there not been a Jimmy Lee Jackson, there could not have been an Obama. Jimmy Lee Jackson led a march in in Aniston Alabama, he was 34 years old, he wanted the right to register. He was a deacon in the local church. And they kept arresting him. So he called up the SCLC in Atlanta, and king and all them was busy, but [CHECK AUDIO] and they called me. They said, man, we got this march we're gonna have. So I jumped on the plane, my lane was late. So I got there late. They had arrested James orange that morning and put him in jail. Well, general Lee Jackson went to church, issue organized the ministers and the women in the choir to march to the church that night to say to the local sheriff and them you're not gonna lynch him in the middle of the morning. And they didn't go to do anything but sing church songs and read scriptures. But by the time they got there, the sheriffs state police, they shot all the streets out. And then they attacked them. One sheriff was beat -- one of the sheriffs was beaten up, Jimmy Lee Jackson's father. Well, his mother was there, so she jumped on the sheriff to pull him off the father, and they beat them all the way into a negro cafe. When the mother tried to pull them out, they started beating the mother who was Jimmy Lee Jackson's mother so he ran over to interrupt it, and they shot him in the stomach five times.
GREGORY: No, no, no. No. It don't stop there. Of they carried him to jail. Not to the hospital. And about six hours later, they [CHECK AUDIO] and four days later, he died. And I want you to hear this to show you how the universe works. Jimmy Lee Jackson, the march, the famous march that got the voting right deal pushed through from Selma to Montgomery, where John Lewis and all of them was attacked on the edman [CHECK AUDIO] there wouldn't have been a march. That march wasn't for voting rights there, that march was in sympathy of what happened to this brother. So they named it the voting rights bill from Selma to Montgomery. But had that not happened, there wouldn't have been a march. So it was that march and that march alone is that created the vote which eventually Barack Obama is able to be preside dent.
CAVANAUGH: A line to Barack Obama from that incident, and the thing is, did you ever think that the America you knew would evolve to vote in an African American president.
GREGORY: No. First just let me say this. You see when I was a little boy, I didn't know about that left wing and right wing, I just knew if the hot dog was good or if it had enough barbecue sauce on it. So my hero was John Wayne. Of I didn't know if he was left wing or right wing. When I would go and look at Ronald Regan, my hero, my man. And I just recently under the freedom of information act, it come out that he was so far to the left, he [CHECK AUDIO] and he was working for Hoover, when they talk about that black list in Hollywood. He was the one giving them the names, okay? He was head of the screen actors guild union. And that's the double cross. That has just come out lately. And so consequently, I had no idea when I was going into Mississippi 45 years ago that I knew I would die. But like I said, John Wayne was my man. And king come out, and John Wayne said, they're right, and they're wrong, and they're gonna get your gun and kill them. That's my man. So doctor king said, we'll be peaceful and nonviolent. When I joined the movement, I wasn't peaceful and nonviolent, [CHECK AUDIO] but I knew, you know what it's like to live in San Diego today and be a woman and you so hated by the male domination, if you got raped or killed or robbed, there's nobody you could call. That's what we lived -- who you gonna call? And so when we were down there, I knew I would die [CHECK AUDIO] but I went anyway. And that's why I can understand what happened in Egypt. I lived that. Once that fear leaves, fear and God do not occupy the same space. Yes?
CAVANAUGH: I'm sorry, I'm just gonna ask you, I know you're gonna be speaking at UCSD this week, and I'm wondering, when you go and you speak and you tell these stories to an audience, and there are a lot of college students there, do you sometimes think, you know, do these young people have the same stuff that I had when I had -- made that decision to go down south and march? Is that still part of us?
GREGORY: They pass us. They passed us now.
GREGORY: See, the more you understand freedom, the more you appreciate it, and the more you willing to die for it. Give me a army that's willing to die, and I will destroy any army that's willing to kill. And so let me just finish this real quick.
GREGORY: So when I'm in Mississippi, I knew we would die. We didn't. We kept going, we kept going. Now, today, I can sit here and say to you did I ever believe back then that today I could tell you, head of the miss misstate troupers is a black man? Head of the social services is a black woman? When you stop and think how far we've come in such a short period and how we changed America, when our legislation came through, it didn't say for Negroes only. So every [CHECK AUDIO] couldn't be a cop?
GREGORY: You couldn't be president of MIT, you couldn't run that zoo out there. Them a bunch of animals. And now, the only thing that you could do at the air line, you could be a stewardess, you couldn't be a pilot, okay? You couldn't be a mechanic, okay? And other than being a stewardess, you had to be -- look like something off the center page of playboy magazine.
GREGORY: And because that civil rights bill that didn't say for Negroes only, any time you get on a plane today and see an old, short, fat white woman stewardess. We got her that job. Not her brother, not the Marines. We got that job. And so everything changed. Because like I said, did I ever see -- that wasn't even on our minds. [CHECK AUDIO] no problem.
CAVANAUGH: We're out of time. But I want to let everybody know, that Dick Gregory comedian, civil rights activist, raconteur, [CHECK AUDIO] Joan Crock institute for peace and justice.
GREGORY: Is it tomorrow night or Thursday night?
CAVANAUGH: I think it's tomorrow night.
GREGORY: Is it. Okay. I'm glad you told me.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you very much, Gregory. That was great.
GREGORY: God less.
CAVANAUGH: God bless you. You've been listening to These Days on KPBS.
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