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For Dick Gregory, being funny and being an activist went hand in hand

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I never had the chance to meet Dick Gregory, the stand-up comedian who became a ’60s-era civil rights activist, but I’ve felt his presence all around me. Gregory died Saturday in Washington, D.C. at age 84.

Gregory lived not too far from my home in northwest Washington and I often saw him moving about the community, talking to well-wishers on street corners, popping into barber shops, and hanging out in places that ordinary, black residents go for pleasure or business. He was an unmistakable presence, often dressed in a comfortable jogging suit, floppy tennis hat, and white sneakers — and always sporting his trademark Santa Claus beard.

My friend Preston Sampson, a Washington-area artist, recalled last seeing him about a month ago at the Whole Foods in Silver Spring, Maryland. “He was there on a constant and regular basis and every time I saw him, I’d stop and talk to him,” Sampson told me. “He always wanted to share some wisdom with me or whoever was around.”

During that last chance encounter in the produce section, Sampson said he asked Gregory how President Donald Trump was doing in office, which led to a profanely hilarious lecture that turned the store in to a comedy club. “He went into a diatribe about the president that drew a crowd of shoppers,” Sampson said, adding that people were laughing out loud in the aisle between bins of arugula and tomatoes. “He didn’t give a damn that he was in a Whole Foods. He had something he wanted to say and he did it. He loved holding court and making people laugh, even to the end of his life.”

“He loved holding court and making people laugh, even to the end of his life.”

And he did so in courageous fashion. Gregory’s breakthrough came in January 1961 when his agent booked the near-penniless comedian to replace a more famous comedian at Chicago’s Playboy Club for a Sunday night performance, according to a Los Angeles Times obituary. The audience of white frozen-food industry executives from the South must have been stunned when Gregory appeared to entertain them instead of Irwin Corey, a better known comedian of that day.

Gregory told that obviously hostile audience a joke that later developed into one of his stand-up staples.

“Last time I was down South, I walked into this restaurant, and this white waitress came up to me and said, ‘We don’t serve colored people here.’ I said, ‘That’s all right, I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.’ ”

Then, to drive the humor to an unmistakable level, he took the joke a step further.

“And then these white cousins come in. You know Ku, Klux, and Klan. They walked up to me  and say, ‘Whatever you do to that chicken, boy, we’re going to do you.’ So I opened up its legs and kissed it in the rump and told the cousins, ‘Be my guest.’”

That Chicago show — originally scheduled for 55 minutes, but ultimately lasting nearly two hours — produced a thundering ovation and led to repeated bookings at the Playboy Club. His career as a stand-up comedian took off from there, paving the way for other black comics such Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor to find crossover appeal with black and white audiences later in the 1960s.

While Gregory’s talent for making people laugh made him famous, it was his social activism that made him a star. In 1962, at the request of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, he agreed to speak at a voter registration rally in Jackson, Mississippi, launching him into what he called “the civil rights fight.” He never surrendered that fight.

Gregory’s activist streak took him to many varied places in the ensuing decades. He launched humorous campaigns for president of the United States. He engaged in extended liquid-diet fasts and hunger strikes to protest the war in Vietnam, the failed Equal Rights Amendment, police brutality, South African apartheid, nuclear power, prison reform, drug and alcohol abuse, food safety, and Native American rights.

He also was a proponent of conspiracy theories, which delighted his common-man audiences. “Dick had a standpoint, a point of view that wasn’t articulated by a lot of people, but was shared by a great deal of them that he talked to on the streets,” said Sampson. “He said a lot of things that people thought but were afraid to say out loud. He said them in a humorous way, but his satire always had a point.”

“His satire always had a point.”

The fact that Gregory knew how to make a socially relevant point palatable was the reason leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Andrew Young, Dorothy Height, and Jesse Jackson, Jr. called upon him over the years. He helped draw attention to their civil rights activism — and loved doing it.

Joel Brokaw, who worked for more than 20 years as a show business publicist and social activist, recalled working with Gregory in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In an interview, Brokaw told me he met the comedian through his work as an advisor and consultant to the late women’s and civil rights leader Dorothy Height, a long-time president of the National Council of Negro Women, Inc.

“Ms. Height would call [Gregory] and he would drop whatever he was doing to respond,” Brokaw said. “He was a fixture at all the Black Family Reunions. He was just stalwart for being there.”

Brokaw shared with me a story Gregory told him about his college years, as a track scholarship recipient at Southern Illinois University, that offered insights into the comedian’s professional career and personal character. Obituaries will note that Gregory dropped out of college without a degree, he said, but that’s not the full story.

“The truth was that he refused his degree,” Brokaw told me, noting that the university gave graduating students job leads and Gregory discovered the ones he was offered were inferior to white students with poorer grades than he’d earned. “That was an injustice he could not live with. So he decided there and then, one day before his graduation, to drop out.”

Brokaw said that was indicative of his keen sense of racial injustice and fighting spirit. “I had the chance to talk with him many times throughout the years and I always walked away a better man after listening to him,” Brokaw said in a Facebook tribute.

Though I can’t recall ever having a conversation with Gregory, I do remember seeing him at the neighborhood McDonald’s, where I overheard him talking smack about fast food and spinning yarns about how “the system” or “the man” was behind the Kennedy assassination and terrorist attacks on September 11 in New York.

He was truly one of a kind and I’m sad that, as close and omnipresent as he was in my world, I never drew close enough to know him at all.

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