Dick Gregory is gone, at least from this level of existence.To the world his departure was sudden. It came a week or two after public announcements that Gregory had been hospitalized. He was a warrior, defined as a person “who is engaged aggressively or energetically in an activity, cause, or conflict.”
Gregory was born four years after my mother, who was born the year before the stock market crashed.Gregory came forth the year that the Great Depression declared that it was here and it was here to stay for awhile.
Dick knew enormous poverty in a land of plenty. He knew the brutality of St. Louis, Missouri long before Michael Brown would be gunned down in her streets in the 21st century.
A student of history, Dick was aware of the fact, that he was born 75 years after a Black man enslaved in St. Louis named Dred Scott was denied human existence by the United States Supreme Court. A court case which vicariously defined Blacks everywhere in the country as less than human, as a commodity that could be bought and sold by anyone who possessed a bill of sale to prove he owned that Black person.
One day Dick opened his third eye. He like to say that he picked up a pair of glasses he had found on the roadway and that the world changed for him when he put on the glasses of truth. Dick said that when you learn the truth you can never go back to living a lie.
After the civil rights movement fizzled following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dick went on a crusade to get the masses of Blacks to open their eyes and taste the truth much like a dark skinned man who walked the earth 2000 years ago.
Let us admit it. Dick has been largely ignored for the past 40 years by the majority of dark skinned people. People who were unable to separate the trappings of upper mobility gained from civil unrest engaged in primarily from 1955-1968, from the salient idea of freedom expressed by dark skinned people as they tore off the shackles of enslavement from 1863-1868.
He has been ignored because his continuous push for recognition of the inalienable rights of humankind to live out their lives without a badge of inferiority tends to get in the way of the good food, nice clothes, and big homes that some have and many equate with freedom.
Dick was our brother, plain and simply, our brother. He greeted people as if they were family members. He loved and cared for the people he met as if they were family. This writer first met Dick in 1972 when he came to speak with students at Tuskegee Institute.
Prior to Dick’s visit, it was said of this scribe by his baseball teammates that he was “the only man in the world who did not eat no meat.” After Dick’s visit their teasing refrain, bordering on bullying, changed to: “Harold Harvey and Dick Gregory, the only two men in the world who do not eat no meat.”
In 1969, this writer read Dick’s book, “Nigger” and was struck by his explanation for vegetarianism. A meatless diet has been incorporated into my lifestyle since that year. The other memorable passage from this book is the closing line: “And momma one day there won’t be any Niggers anymore.” That day, I joined my brother in his quest to eliminate niggers from the universal order of things.
Our brother Dick began his lecture in the Tuskegee Chapel that February morning in ’72 at 10:00 a. m., he would not stop until five and a half-hour later, punching holes into the myth of American righteousness, and declaring that the federal government should “give the country back to the Indians.”
Back in 1968, Clyde Bellecourt was living on the so-called White Earth Indian Reservation in what the white man calls Minnesota, but was named “Cloudy Water or Sky-Tinted Water” by the Dakota Sioux.
Bellecourt prefers his native name, The Thunder Before the Storm. At 81 years of age, he is one of the few remaining warriors, now that Dick has ceased to roam the land once possessed by natives like The Thunder Before the Storm.
After spending time in an Oklahoma prison, The Thunder Before the Storm joined with his brother Vernon and the Ojibwe warrior from the Turtle Clan, Nowa Cumig, known as Dennis Banks to form the American Indian Movement (AIM).
This organization was dedicated to the advocacy of Native Rights. Our brother Dick, was one of the first Black warriors to join with them and one of the few who remained with them over the course of the last 49 years.
The Thunder Before the Storm, brought the “thunder” during a six hour celebration of life service for Brother Dick at the City of Praise Ministries in Landover, Maryland 26 days after Dick moved up from life to life after life. There is no grave built to contain the spirit of Baba Dick, no sting of death can stop the magnificent energy force that was our brother, Dick. It would be an insult to whisper “rest in peace” to a warrior spirit such as that possessed by Gregory.
He told a packed house in the 10,000 seat sanctuary at City of Praise, that Native tribes on these shores were not giving up another inch of land to the United States government and that they are just as committed as they were in 1968 to reclaim land taken from them by the European colonists from the 16th through the 20th centuries, and even lands taken in the 21st century.
Back in 1972, Dick invited me to run with him after his Tuskegee lecture, but only if I was willing to run the entire 10 miles. He excused me after one mile so that I could get back to baseball practice. While he was out running on the famous Tuskegee track that produced the first Black female Olympic Gold Medalist, Alice Coachman (High Jump, 1948), a young Black man or young Black men entered into the locker room in Logan Hall and stole his wallet. That evening he would blister Tuskegee before a white audience at Columbus College in Columbus, Georgia.
Two years later, I would meet Dick again when he came to speak at Mercer University in my hometown of Macon, Georgia. Again, he lectured from 10:00 a. m. until 3:00 pm. At the 1:00 o’clock hour he said to a group of 18-21 year-old white kids in Willingham Chapel, “When you came, I bet you didn’t realize that you were going to fast today.”
In 2012, I went to Sanford, Florida to cover a demonstration called by Rev. Al Sharpton over the killing of Trayvon Martin by a white neighborhood watch captain. I arrived early at the site of the demonstration to get a sense of the crowd as people began to arrive at the park.
Lost among the multitude was an unassuming gray bearded, nappy haired man, sitting in a gazebo, talking on a flip-top cell phone. It was Baba Dick.
I waited until he was finished and asked if I could interview him. He asked me to have a seat. One of his children, I believe it to have been his daughter Ayanna Gregory came over and asked him if she could get him something to eat.
He said that he would eat later. She lingered, perhaps hoping he would change his mind. He didn’t. He was accustomed to going without food for long periods of time.
In the end, his son Christian Gregory, the chiropractor, clearing up his dad’s cause of death during the celebration of life service said, his father’s forced starvations “caused his blood vessels to deteriorate.”
The damage was so severe that 47 years after he vowed to stop eating until the Vietnam War was stopped (it lasted on two additional years after his fast began), his blood vessels could not properly transport oxygen and nutrients throughout his body, causing him to give up the Holy Ghost 46 days before his 85th birthday.
The interview began. We were interrupted by a young Black man who wanted to take a picture with Dick.
“Don’t you see me talking with the Black press,” Dick bellowed.
Then he launched into a recitation that we would not have known about the killing of Trayvon Martin had it not been for the Black press. I was a little bewildered by his association of the Black press, as I was covering this demonstration for a traditional news organization; and the Black press as I knew it in the early days of my journalism career had practically been wiped out of existence.
Jet and Ebony Magazines had been sold to white controlled corporations, so too had the Atlanta Daily World and Black Entertainment Television (BET).
I quickly searched my memory banks to see if I recalled seeing a breaking story about Trayvon Martin in the Baltimore Afro-American or one of the few remaining national Black newspapers. I drew a blank.
As he talked about the importance of the Black press, it dawned on me, he was letting me know that the Black press of the 21st century are those Black men and women who work for white owned media sources; and that Black journalists, no matter their platform have to communicate the truth to the people, otherwise, the people will perish.
Qualifiedly yes, I think, Dick would say, that ESPN’s sports show host Jemele Hill, who has drawn fire for calling the US President a white supremacists and bigot, has an obligation to speak out on the politics of the day.
At the end of our conversation, I apologized to him for the student or students at Tuskegee who had taken his wallet back in 1972.
Here is a link to the story that I wrote for Allvoices from this interview:
Our paths would cross again in 2014 at the 90th birthday celebration of my neighbor and his long-time friend, Rev. C. T. Vivian, whose legacy is etched into the American voting rights psyche. Dick was at the celebration autographing copies of his book Callous on my Soul.
Three years later during the celebratory service for Gregory, Vivian said of him, “Dick Gregory was not a comic, he was no clown. He was always a humorist.”
A week before Dick moved to his next assignment, this journalist visited with Vivian in his Atlanta home. Vivian at 93 years of age, like The Thunder Before the Storm, is among the few warriors left, who have never veered from the course of freedom, no matter how much acclaim and fortune has come his way.
On the occasion of this visit, Vivian said that his goal is to develop a library that contains books that reveal not only what Black people think of themselves, but how white people over the ages have viewed Black people.
Vivian believes that true freedom comes, when people of different cultures and backgrounds accept the truth of oppression and degradation; and until we all know what the other thinks, we can not arrive at that day when humankind can sit down and fellowship at the table of brotherly and sisterly love.
During his lifetime, when Dick left his wife Lillian and their 10 children at home to do battle with Goliath, he went to war on behalf of his extended family of brothers and sisters. Always giving his time and economic resources and always forgiving the slights of misguided slings and arrows hurled his way.
Dick was that rare brother who did not mine sticking his neck out for others unwilling or incapable of sticking their necks out for themselves.
Myrlie Evers-Williams is the widow of the warrior, Medgar Evers, who stuck his neck out for his brothers and sisters in Mississippi and was gunned down in his driveway within hours of President John F. Kennedy’s national broadcast pledging to fight for the enactment of civil rights legislation. It was the white supremacists’ answer to Kennedy’s declaration.
She told the celebrants that “We all need to rededicate ourselves to the things that Dick Gregory fought for and we should speak the truth for who America should be.”
Evers-Williams found a peculiar irony in the fact that the title of a one-man play on Broadway about Gregory are the last words spoken by Medgar in the hospital as he laid in transition mode: “Turn me loose,” Medgar Evers had said.
Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, a recorder of current events said, “Dick Gregory was living history.”
The living warrior, Rev. William Barber from Moral Mondays dropped in to say that “Anyone who listened to Gregory’s comedy routine and thinks that injustice is funny, the joke is on you.”
Barber further brought Gregory’s legacy into perspective saying, “His comedy gave us a backbone. He knew the politics of man’s power in the face of the power of God is a joke.”
News Commentator Lawrence O’Donnell, who also converted to vegetarianism after reading Gregory’s first book in the late 1960s, said of Gregory “He rewrote American history from the fable it is to the truth.”
From congress came not John Lewis of Bloody Sunday fame, or Maryland congressman Elijah Cummings, but the Warrior Queen Maxine Waters, from California by way of St. Louis, Missouri.
In no uncertain terms our Sister Maxine said, “I have decided that I have no fear.”
“It’s time,” she said “for all of us to walk in the walk of Dick Gregory.”
Our fearless sister noted that Bill and Camille Cosby were in the sanctuary to pay final tribute to our brother.
Of the Cosbys, Waters said, “If you can’t stand with your friends when they need you, they don’t need you for a friend. Bill and Camille have always been there for our community.”
Whereupon, the audience cheered Waters’ comments and saluted the Cosbys.
She then invoked a parliamentary procedure to reclaim her time and set before the congregation the fight on The Hill to reclaim the country from the Alt-Right. Waters said she will call for the impeachment of Donald Trump everyday that she wakes up.
“When I get through with Donald Trump,” she said, he is going to wish he had been impeached.”
Up stepped a young warrior, Yohance Maqubela, one of ten warrior seeds our brother planted in the womb of Lillian Gregory.
“Daddy,” Maqubela said, “has handed the baton. He didn’t hand it to me. He handed it to all of you.”
Before Maqubela “camel walked,” – a dance made famous by James Brown and the only dance step his father knew – from the pulpit, he challenged the nation to champion the causes that his father supported like the removal of the name of the professional football franchise in the District of Columbia, that insults many indigenous people.
Our brother was eulogized by The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, an 84 year old warrior, whom Gregory has both rebuked and praised.
Rev. Willie Wilson introduced Farrakhan as a “Hybrid Angel,” as a testament to Farrakhan’s spiritual and prophetic maturity.
The Minister in that soft melodic voice of his said, “Dick Gregory is one of the most marvelous persons that I have known in my 84 years of life. He did not like racism. He was so far beyond dogma. He was with people, but was very much alone, because there were few people who were on his level.”
“Dick Gregory,” The Minister said, “spoke truth for the living and truth for the dead.”
“When we look at the work of our brother, the question for us,” The Minister exhorted, “is what have you done with the time that the Creator gives us.”
“If you had the faith like Dick Gregory had faith,” he postulated,”we could change the world overnight.”
“His faith made him one of the greatest men of all time,” Farrakhan said.
Our brother, a drum major for truth and justice now roams with the ancestors.
What will become of us when The Thunder Before the Storm, Vivian,Barber, Waters, Farrakhan, et. al., move up to glory? Will the strivings of diligent sons come to an end?
Who will accept the baton from our brother? Who, as Marvin Gaye sang, “is willing to try to save a world that is destined to die.”
Somewhere, I read that the Hebrew Prophet Isaiah said: “Here I am Lord, send me.”
Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist. He is a Contributor at The Hill, SCLC National Magazine, Southern Changes Magazine and Black College Nines. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org