Dick Gregory, who rose from poverty to become a groundbreaking comedian and civil rights activist, dies at 84

Leave a comment


Dick Gregory, who became the first black stand-up comic to break the color barrier in major nightclubs in the early 1960s, a decade in which he satirized segregation and race relations in his act and launched his lifetime commitment to civil rights and other social justice issues, died Saturday. He was 84.

His death was confirmed on his official social media accounts by his family.

“It is with enormous sadness that the Gregory family confirms that their father, comedic legend and civil rights activist Mr. Dick Gregory departed this earth tonight in Washington, DC.,” his son Christian Gregory wrote.

Even before the confirmation from the family, Rev. Jesse Jackson, a longtime friend of Gregory’s, had memorialized him in a tweet:

“He taught us how to laugh. He taught us how to fight.He taught us how to live. Dick Gregory was committed to justice. I miss him already.”

Steve Jaffe, Gregory’s friend and publicist for more than 50 years, told a Times reporter Saturday night that the comedian died of heart failure. He said Gregory was touring earlier this month on the East Coast and was supposed to be in Los Angeles in a week.

“He was one of the sweetest smartest, most loving people one could ever know,” Jaffe said. “I just hope God is ready for some outrageously funny times.”

In a life that began in poverty in St. Louis during the Depression, the former Southern Illinois University track star became known as an author, lecturer, nutrition guru and self-described agitator who marched, ran and fasted to call attention to issues ranging from police brutality to world famine.

An invitation from civil rights leader Medgar Evers to speak at voter registration rallies in Jackson, Miss., in 1962 launched Gregory into what he called “the civil rights fight.”

He was frequently arrested for his activities in the ’60s, and once spent five days in jail in Birmingham, Ala. after joining demonstrators in 1963 at the request of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Gregory, who was shot in the leg while trying to help defuse the Watts riots in 1965, made a failed run for mayor of Chicago as a write-in candidate in 1967. A year later, he ran for president as a write-in candidate for the Freedom and Peace Party, a splinter group of the Peace and Freedom Party. Hunter S. Thompson was one of his most vocal supporters.

In the late ’60s, he began going on 40-day fasts to protest the Vietnam War.

In 1980, impatient with President Carter’s handling of the Iranian hostage crisis, he flew to Iran and began a fast, had a “ceremonial visit” with revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and met with the revolutionary students inside the embassy. After four and a half months in Iran, his weight down to 106 pounds, he returned home.

But before Dick Gregory the activist, there was Dick Gregory the groundbreaking comedian.

He was a struggling 28-year-old stand-up comic in Chicago who had launched his career in small black clubs when he received a life-changing, last-minute phone call from his agent in January 1961: The prestigious Playboy Club in Chicago needed someone to fill in for comedian Irwin Corey on Sunday night.

Gregory was so broke he had to borrow a quarter from his landlord for bus fare downtown. Never mind that his audience turned out to be a convention of white frozen-food-industry executives from the South.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” Gregory said, coolly eyeing the audience. “I understand there are a good many Southerners in the room tonight. I know the South very well. I spent 20 years there one night. …

“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.’ ”

Despite having to deal with what he later described as “dirty, little, insulting statements” from some members of the audience, the heckling soon stopped as Gregory won them over with his provocatively funny but nonbelligerent satirical humor.

“Segregation is not all bad,” he said on stage. “Have you ever heard of a wreck where the people on the back of the bus got hurt?”

What was supposed to be a 55-minute show, Gregory later recalled, went on for about an hour and 40 minutes. And by the time he walked off stage, the audience gave him a thundering ovation.

He did so well, he was booked at the club for two weeks and then held over for several more.

That February, a Time magazine writer who caught Gregory’s act at the Playboy Club painted a glowing portrait of a man who, with “intelligence, sophistication, and none of the black-voice buffoonery of Amos ’n’ Andy,” had “become the first Negro comedian to make his way into the nightclub big time.”

“What makes Gregory refreshing,” the writer observed, “is not only that he feels secure enough to joke about the trials and triumphs of his own race, but that he can laugh, in a sort of brotherhood of humor, with white men about their own problems, can joke successfully about the NAACP as well as the PTA.”

From his success at the Playboy Club, which a Newsweek writer later observed marked the death of Jim Crow “in the joke world,” Gregory’s career quickly snowballed.

Jack Paar read about him in Time and invited him on his late-night show. That led to a booking at the fashionable Blue Angel in New York City. The New York Times soon ran a profile of Gregory, as did Esquire magazine later in the year. He also signed a contract for his first comedy album, “In Living Black and White.”

“Greg opened the door,” comedian and future TV star Redd Foxx told the New York Times in 1961. “Somebody had to be first. There’s room for all of us. He can’t work Pittsburgh and Glocca Morra the same night.”

With his three-button black suit, a swirl of smoke from his ever-present cigarette and his unhurried delivery, Gregory radiated what author Gerald Nachman described as “positive, cool vibes” on stage.

Gregory “behaved as if he belonged up there, unapologetically, as if his presence was inevitable,” Nachman wrote In his 2003 book “Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s.”

“He might have been seething underneath, but on the surface he generally appeared bemused by the hostilities and hypocrisies of the racial divide,” wrote Nachman. “Here or there, a joke might betray a hint of bitterness, like his line about an integrated swimming pool that had a blind lifeguard.”

When he hit in 1961, Gregory once said, “there wasn’t a healthy race joke in America. They were all derogatory to one race or another.” But he “gave the country a new way out — healthy racial jokes.”

And once he got audiences laughing, he found, “I could say anything.”

“This isn’t a revolution of black against white; this is a revolution of right against wrong,” he told one audience. “And right has never lost.”

His act, however, wasn’t all about race relations.

“I been readin’ so much about cigarettes and cancer, I quit readin’,” he observed on stage.

On the bellicose Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev: “Wouldn’t it be funny if Khrushchev didn’t really hate us, but his interpreter did?”

Gregory became so well-known that in 1964, E.P. Dutton published his autobiography, the provocatively titled “nigger.” He dedicated the book to his late mother: “Wherever you are, if ever you hear [that] word … again, remember they are advertising my book.” In all, he wrote five books, one a cookbook.

By then, Gregory’s high-profile involvement in the civil rights movement was overshadowing his comedy career.

His activism took a huge financial toll on Gregory in lost bookings and the cost of travel and other expenses. But as he put it: “I found somethin’ that made me feel better inside than comedy.”

Gregory, who became a vegetarian and gave up drinking and smoking, decided in 1973 to no longer work in venues that sold alcohol. In 1984, he founded Health Enterprises Inc., a company that distributed weight-loss products, including a powdered diet mix, Dick Gregory’s Slim Safe Bahamian Diet.

In between writing books and speaking on health and social issues with fiery passion on the lecture circuit, Gregory continued his activism.

In 2000, he protested police brutality in New York and Detroit and went to Kentucky to demand the hiring of black school principals.

A decade later, after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, he announced his plan to go on a 30-day fast to maintain public awareness of the need for ongoing Haitian relief.

As Gregory told Ebony magazine at the time: “I am still more inclined to go and march for a young man wrongfully killed in Harlem than do a gig at a university. Once the movement is in you, it’s there. It never leaves.”

Born in St. Louis on Oct. 12, 1932, he was the second of six children. Their father was often absent and finally deserted the family.

His mother, who cleaned the homes of wealthy white people and took care of their children, was a positive influence, telling her own children that “man has two ways out in life — laughing or crying. There’s more hope in laughing.”

Gregory, who shined shoes and did other odd jobs as a child, was a high school track star — he won the mile in 4:28 at an all-black Missouri state track meet — and was president of his graduating class.

He received an athletic scholarship to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where he became captain of the cross-country and track teams and the school’s fastest half-miler.

His education was interrupted in 1954 when he was drafted into the Army, where his wisecracks and nonmilitary demeanor earned him an ultimatum from a colonel: Either enter and win an open talent show at the service club or face a court-martial.

Gregory won the contest, with jokes such as explaining how the Army charged him $85 when he lost his rifle: “That’s why in the Navy, the captain always goes down with his ship.” After winning two more contests, he was placed in Special Services.

After his discharge in 1956, Gregory returned to Southern Illinois University. But he soon dropped out and moved to Chicago. He worked for a time at the post office — “I kept flipping the letters to Mississippi in the foreign slot,” he’d joke — and then at Ford Aircraft before landing a job as a comic-emcee in the lounge of a neighborhood bar on Chicago’s South Side.

In the audience one night was Lillian Smith, a young secretary at the University of Chicago, who became his wife and the mother of their 10 children (an 11th died in infancy). Gregory frequently said his wife was the spiritual core of his family, and his children his most devoted admirers.

In 2016, musician John Legend produced a one-man play on Gregory’s life, “Turn Me Loose.” Legend said he marveled at how fresh and relevant the comedian’s brand of humor of remained.

“It sounds like he’s aware of what’s happening now even though they were written so long ago,” Legend told the Boston Globe.

The lines were pure Gregory, funny, clever and dipped in sarcasm : “I never learned hate at home, or shame. I had to go to school for that.”

In addition to his wife, Gregory is survived by children Ayanna, Yohance, Stephanie, Miss, Christian, Michele, Pamela, Paula, Lynne and Gregory.

By Dennis McLellan/LATimes

Posted by The NON-Conformist


Where Free Speech Ends, Ignorance Begins

Leave a comment

At the risk of sounding like a geezer complaining about “these kids today,” back in my college days, when it came to points of view we were unhesitatingly exposed to literature, teachers and on-campus speakers covering the ideological waterfront.

In one instance, the student body was addressed by civil rights activist and comedian Dick Gregory, radical Irish activist Bernadette Devlin and the conservative writer and critic Russell Kirk — all in the course of a week or so.

Such variety was a common occurrence, and freewheeling, open discussion was encouraged. We didn’t always like or agree with a lot of what we heard or read — from time to time there were vehement protests — but all of it was invaluable. None of us were harmed in the making of our education.

So I was appalled other day when I read about the attempt by Republican Arkansas legislator Kim Hendren to ban from that state’s public schools all books written by the great radical historian Howard Zinn, including his seminal “A People’s History of the United States,” a truthful, lacerating look at the heroes and villains of America — especially the oligarchs and kleptocrats who once again have their heels on the necks of the poor and middle class.

But I also was deeply troubled by the incident at Vermont’s Middlebury College on March 2, when controversial social scientist Charles Murray was invited by a conservative student group and attempted to speak on campus. Here’s what happened, according to the Associated Press:

“Hundreds of students chanted as Murray began to speak Thursday, forcing the college to move the lecture to an undisclosed location. Murray’s talk was live-streamed to the original venue, but protesters drowned it out. The topic, he said, was the divergence of the country’s culture into a new upper class separated from mainstream America.

“Afterward, a group of protesters surrounded Murray, professor Allison Stanger and college administrator Bill Burger as they were leaving, he said. The protesters became violent, with one pulling Stanger’s hair, twisting her neck, the college said.

“After Murray and the two Middlebury staff members got into a car to leave, protesters banged on the windows, climbed onto the hood and rocked the vehicle, the college and Murray said.”

Professor Stanger, by the way, went to the ER and was subsequently diagnosed with concussion. She’s a respected political scientist at Middlebury and a fellow at the progressive New America, and was there the other night because the conservative student group had asked her to provide a counterpoint to Murray’s speech, to interview him from the stage after his prepared remarks. She had prepared some tough, challenging questions.

Many of Charles Murray’s opinions are indeed odious and his research highly questionable, He was co-author of “The Bell Curve,” a notorious book that seemed to link race and IQ. He describes himself as a libertarian, but the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) calls him a white nationalist and reports:

“According to Murray, the relative differences between the white and black populations of the United States, as well as those between men and women, have nothing to do with discrimination or historical and structural disadvantages, but rather stem from genetic differences between the groups… Murray’s attempts to link social inequality to genes are based on the work of explicitly racist scientists.”

At the beginning of Murray’s attempt to speak at Middlebury, students turned their backs to him and chanted in protest. I probably would have done the same. But to not let him speak and to allow the protests to lead to violence is inexcusable. I realize that this raises all sorts of questions about freedom of speech and academic liberty, the nature of dissent and when and if political violence is ever justified, but looking at what happened coolly — and admittedly, from a distance — it seems clear that this went far beyond the boundaries of civil discourse that especially today must be defended against the barbarians who already have run roughshod, pushing through the gates and seizing the reins of power and governance.

Professor Stanger said it best herself. She wrote:

“To people who wish to spin this story as one about what’s wrong with elite colleges and universities, you are mistaken. Please instead consider this as a metaphor for what is wrong with our country, and on that, Charles Murray and I would agree. This was the saddest day of my life. We have got to do better by those who feel and are marginalized. Our 230-year constitutional democracy depends on it, especially when our current President is blind to the evils he has unleashed. We must all realize the precious inheritance we have as fellow Americans and defend the Constitution against all its enemies, both foreign and domestic. That is why I do not regret my involvement in the event with Dr. Murray.”

And then she quoted James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

I can be as guilty as the next person about tuning out and trying to ignore the voice of someone with whom I vehemently disagree. I know, too, that this indeed is a time to speak out against the ignorance and despotism sweeping our nation. Further, I realize that the religious, racial and homophobic hate crimes that have been on the upswing since Donald Trump’s candidacy and election — and increased in 2016 for the second year in a row according to the Southern Poverty Law Center — far exceed in numbers and intensity any violence or brutishness that has occurred on college campuses. No question that they’re more frightening and dangerous.

But, in the words of Andrew Sullivan, “Universities are the sanctuary cities of reason. If reason must be subordinate to ideology even there, our experiment in self-government is over.”

Two sides of the same coin: whether the Trump White House or those who would physically attack a college professor. Their unthinking, unyielding enslavement to a single viewpoint is fatal.

Ignorance begets ignorance and hate begets hate. And like a virus, each can infect without regard to race, gender, creed or political perspective. At a time when those in charge are fueling a pandemic of intolerance we must make sure not to succumb ourselves.

By Michael Winship / Moyers & Company

Posted by The NON-Conformist

Twitter cuts ties with firm believed to help police spy on activists

Leave a comment

Twitter is doubling down on its commitment to opposing police use of its data for surveillance. The social network has severed its contract with Media Sonar, which produces surveillance software used by 19 local government agencies.
The social media giant cut Sonar off in October as part of its commitment to opposing the use of its data by companies that offer mass surveillance tools to law enforcement. Media Sonar was guilty of doing so, Twitter confirmed to the Daily Dot on Friday.

Media Sonar’s access to API, Twitter’s public platform for developers, was shut down, and Twitter told the Daily Dot that if they try to create more, “we will terminate those as well and take further action as appropriate.”

Media Sonar’s sales representatives pitched the cloud-based surveillance program as being “specifically designed for law enforcement” and their promotional material contains “an effective list of high frequency social media terms that can help identify illegal activity and threats to public safety.”

A copy of their material was obtained by the ACLU who discovered that much of the terminology contained on the list pertained to anti-police brutality movements, such as Black Lives Matter. A separate column for Mike Brown-related keywords was included in the 2015 material.

The list also contained keywords of questionable quality. For example, under the gangs column, Media Sonar included keywords like “CEO,” “beat,” and “RIP.” All of these are words apparently can establish a user as potentially being up to no good.

Other interesting choices include placing “dissent” as a potential keyword for police evasion and crimes against police and “brother” as a potential keyword for human trafficking. Phrases that attract children are, according to Media Sonar, “IWSN,” which Media Sonar believes means, “I want sex now,” much to the chagrin of the Injured Worker Support Network.

Misunderstanding of youth culture aside, Media Sonar’s products were purchased by 19 local law enforcement agencies for at least $10,000 each between 2014 and 2016. The promotional material that the ACLU found was actually sent to the Fresno Police Department.

Media Sonar worked by using an artificial intelligence program to “analyze context, phrases and emoticons” “as predictive features” and was pitched as a way to “avoid the warrant process” to learn more about an individual’s social media profiles. Media Sonar also showed trends with individuals that ranged from the products they like to locations they are often tagged in.

Many feel that this kind of software should not be in the hands of law enforcement, because it would offer them the ability to track down and target protest organizers and activists. Twitter has expressed its “commitment to social justice” and claims to be on the lookout for companies like this.

From RT

Posted by The NON-Conformist

Black Lives Matter Activist Announces Bid for Baltimore Mayor

Leave a comment

Image: Time Magazine

Mckesson announced his campaign Wednesday night.

Prominent Black Lives Matter Activist DeRay Mckesson will join the race for Mayor of Baltimore, he announced on Wednesday.

Mckesson, 30, stepped into the already-crowded mayoral contest just minutes before the filing deadline, the BaltimoreSun reports. He announced his run as a Democrat in a statement on Medium.

“It is true that I am a non-traditional candidate ,” Mckesson wrote. “I am an activist, organizer, former teacher and district administrator that intimately understands how interwoven our challenges and our solutions are. I am a son of Baltimore.”

More from Time.com

Posted by Libergirl

New Orleans Actor & Activist Wendell Pierce on the “Greatest Crime” in Wake of Hurricane Katrina

Leave a comment

Posted by the NON-Conformist

Actress Ruby Dee Dead At 91

Leave a comment


Image: CBS Los Angeles

Ruby Dee, an acclaimed actress and civil-rights activist whose career spanned stage, radio television and film, has died at 91,  her daughter said.

Nora Davis Day told The Associated Press on Thursday that her mother died Wednesday night at home in New Rochelle, N.Y.

Dee, who frequently acted alongside her husband of 56 years, Ossie Davis, was surrounded by family and friends, she added.

More from CBS Los Angeles

 Posted by Libergirl

Maya Angelou, Poet And Author, Dead At 86

Leave a comment


Image: Kris Connor/Getty Images

Author and poet Maya Angelou. who rose from poverty, segregation and violence to become a force on stage, screen and the printed page, has died. She was 86.

Wake Forest University announced Angelou’s death in a news release Wednesday.

More from CBS Los Angeles

Posted by Libergirl

Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: