By Ellen McGirt
August 21, 2017

Comedian and activist Dick Gregory died Saturday at 84. Essence has a wonderful photo tribute here, and of course, Twitter gave the great man a great celebration home.

Comedian Dean Obeidallah offers his own tribute here, and correctly identifies Gregory as the first comic to challenge racism from the stand-up stage, which occurred at a fraught time as the country was undergoing massive social change. “But what might surprise some,” explains Obeidallah, “is that Gregory was famously quoted in the early 1960s undercutting the power of comedy as an instrument of social change: ‘Humor can no more find the solution to race problems than it can cure cancer.’”

From his piece:

Over the years that quote — or slight variations of it — has been put to political comedians, including myself, when asked if our comedy can have an impact on hot button political issues. While I believe comedy can move the needle by, at the very least, raising awareness of issues, I also believe Gregory did far more than simply tell jokes. He risked his liberty and his life fighting for equality for African-Americans.

In that spirit, I point you to three videos of Gregory early in his career, showing his signature wit and candor, but also a deep wellspring of gravitas that might otherwise be missed. He rattled off the word “nigger” on the Merv Griffin show without even a smirk, and he stood next to young Jimmy Baldwin and explained to a room full of black students and thinkers that race was more of an attitude than a skin color. It is impossible to watch these short clips without thinking two things. One, the 1960s were a more interesting time than throw-back movies would have us believe. And two, we are in alarmingly familiar territory when it comes to race in the U.S.


  • On police brutality – 1965 A young Dick Gregory talked about police brutality on The Merv Griffin show in September, 1965. “It’s not necessarily when he knocks me upside the head. It’s when a cop calls me ‘nigger’ when he’s making the arrest, it’s when he handles me wrongly in processing the arrest…this is a form of police brutality.”
  • On being a write-in presidential candidate – 1968 A more somber Gregory fielded questions about his decision to run for the presidency as an independent. “I feel that the two-party system is obsolete; the two-party system is so corrupt…that they cannot solve the problems confronting the masses of the people in the country,” he said. When asked about the candidacy of the pro-segregationist, Governor George Wallace, Gregory said he didn’t think it would make a difference politically, but he did think it was important that the issues of race were made plain. “I think it’s good what he’s doing for America because for the first time he’s given people a means of expressing themselves as never had that means before other than throwing a brick or burning a cross,” he said. “Now I don’t think that every vote for Wallace is a vote against black folks, but 99.9% of black folks feel that way.” It was healthy for black people to look racism square in the eye, he said. “[F]or the first time, we have a stick to measure America that we never had before.”
  • On allies, white and black, 1969 Dick Gregory traveled to London to hang with James Baldwin, and the two addressed a crowd of students to discuss the black experience in America, as contrasted with the experience of being Caribbean or African. In this snippet, he was talking about his transition from show business to activism, and how he thought about allies in the U.S. civil rights movement. His signature cutting wit was very much on display. “Okay we’re saying white folks, it’s your turn. We’re going to be the general, you’re going to be the private. This is the way you’re going to march. And when you get through marching over there, you’re going to come back here. And I might pay you, and I might not.”


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