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Remembering Dick Gregory

August 21, 2017, 9:03 PM UTC

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 “I feel that the two-party system is obsolete; the two-party system is so corrupt…that they cannot solve the problems confronting the masses of the people in the country,” he said.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.”

On Point

A data analysis of three billion Reddit comments from “alt-right” groupsThe “alt-right” isn’t just one type of group, explains Tim Squirrell a researcher for the Alt-Right Open Intelligence Initiative, an open-source intelligence project at the University of Amsterdam. Instead, “they’re a loose collection of people from disparate backgrounds who would never normally interact: bored teenagers, gamers, men’s rights activists, conspiracy theorists and, yes, white nationalists and neo-Nazis,” he says. But after examining some three billion comments from people who hang out at The_Donald an “alt-right” Reddit community, they’ve found distinct taxonomies within sub-groups – anti-progressive gamers, 4chan “shitposters”, men’s rights activists, and white surpremacists among them. But, [o]ver the last year and a half, these types of trolls have formed a central identity around Trumpism and have started to coalesce.” A must read.Quartz

Academic talent may be tempted into leaving the U.S.
Increasingly unable to find jobs or research investment in the U.S., exceptional foreign-born academics are being encouraged to move either home or abroad with the promise of meaningful work and investment reports Axios. “Absent a commitment to scientific research or immigration reform, the U.S. risks losing significant numbers of the foreign-born Ph.Ds and post-docs at its best universities to other nations,” they report. “And this brain drain has the potential to accelerate should the White House continue its inaction on these issues.” China, Canada, and France are among the countries ramping up their efforts to attract these highly skilled workers.

Katie Couric releases footage of the Charlottesville rally
The former UVA student was on-site filming for an installment for her National Geographic documentary series on social and cultural change in the U.S.  The footage shows numerous violent clashes, and she interviews several counter protestors. (Couric had previously noted that alt-right marchers had thrown urine at the media.)  “There’s been so much said and written about what happened there, I felt I needed to give my own account of my three days in Charlottesville,” she wrote. “[W]e never expected that this beautiful place would become the center of such ugliness.”
The Wrap

The Woke Leader

What should we call people of more than one race?
Leah Donella digs into history to assemble the dizzying array of terms used to describe people of more than one race around the world. She identifies a disturbing theme: Most are offensive. Her examination describes a poignant history of the failure of science, society and governments to describe people who were often seen as tragically split between two worlds, and rejected by both. So, what do we call ourselves?

Ten podcasts about mental health that will make you feel less alone
The only thing better about this wonderful list of podcasts is the candor the hosts bring to extraordinary discussions about fear, mental illness, despair, addiction, intimacy and life. At this point, I feel like it’s dangerous to not talk about it,” says Struggle Bus co-host Katharine Heller. “Depression can be a scary and lonely place. For me, hearing about other people’s struggles helps me understand I’m not alone.” But first on my list Kaitlin Prest’s “The Heart,” an audio art project about intimacy and humanity. “It’s divided into “seasons” that feature a handful of episodes about various topics such as masculinity and femininityfeelings and love, explains reviewer Rachel Orr, of The Lily. “It’s so beautifully and thoughtfully produced, and it truly is a work of art.”
The Lily

What ever happened to the racist white people in those historical civil rights photos?
Do those pictures of Uncle Jimmy smiling in the foreground of a lynching, or Cousin Thelma spitting at an integrating student, ever make it into a family album somewhere? Photographer and writer Johnny Silvercloud answers his own question by positing that after the passage of civil rights legislation, those old racists simply went silent, turning off the public spigot of their anger and indignation. Their ghosts pop up in odd ways, he says, like when a millionaire peacefully takes a knee during the national anthem. “I highly doubt that the white faces in the first Civil Rights Era just automatically let go of their racist ideologies,” he writes. “White supremacy — racism in America — had to adapt, and it did.” (Disturbing photos ahead if you click through.)


He's one of the first to have the crossover market, even before Bill Cosby. And, you know, there were people like Moms Mabley and Pigmeat Markham, even Flip Wilson. They were working the black clubs. But Dick Gregory was so smart, now, we're not just doing that self-deprecating humor. We're talking about civil rights. He's running for mayor. He's running for president.He's the first one to bring attention to police brutality back in the '60s. And he worked down in Alabama, went to jail in Mississippi and all of those places. But he was a funny man. And something about humor can get you in the door.
—George Wallace, comedian