Monday, 11 October 2021 17:07

The One and Only Dick Gregory

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Jim DiEugenio evaluates the new Showtime documentary, The One and Only Dick Gregory, and provides missing insight into Gregory’s work with Martin Luther King, Jr. and his expanding agenda toward opposition to the Vietnam War and focus on the common class struggle that culminated in the Poor People’s March.

The only comedian I can think of who I would compare to the late Dick Gregory is Mort Sahl. They were both socio-political themed stand-up comedians who, at the peak of their careers, decided to gamble fame and fortune for their political ideals. Sahl did it by deciding to become an investigator for Jim Garrison on the JFK case. Gregory did it for civil rights activists Medgar Evers and then Martin Luther King. He later became involved with people like Robert Groden and Mark Lane on the JFK case and the King case.

The current documentary about Dick Gregory on Showtime, The One and Only Dick Gregory, makes note of the fact that, by 1962, Gregory was probably the hottest comedian in America. In fact, one of the interview subjects, Harry Belafonte, calls him the greatest political comedian ever.

Gregory was born in St. Louis, went to high school there, and then attended Southern Illinois University on a track scholarship. He was drafted into the army and won some talent shows as a comedian. When he returned from the service, he dropped out of college and went to Chicago to try and become a professional comedian. He was one of the very few comedians who decided to make racial issues funny: “Segregation is not all bad. Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?”

This kind of comedy got him noted in both Chicago and New York City. One of his first record albums, East and West, was done in New York. (Between 1961 and 1964, he did seven albums.) When he returned to Chicago, he received what most commentators note as his big break. He replaced Professor Irwin Corey for what was supposed to be one night at the Playboy Club. One of the jokes he cracked that night went like this: “I understand there are a good many Southerners in the room tonight. I know the South very well, I spent twenty years there one night.” He was such a hit that the one-night stand turned into six weeks. One notice read as follows:

Dick Gregory, age 28, has become the first Negro comedian to make his way into the nightlife club big time.

Another said:

What makes Gregory refreshing 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…

This highly successful Chicago appearance caught the attention of Jack Paar. After Steve Allen, Paar was the second steady host of The Tonight Show. It was Paar who made the show into the institution it became. Paar was not just funny. He was intelligent, informed, curious, and principled. In other words, he was just the kind of late-night host who Dick Gregory would appeal to. As the comedian later added, it was not just the fact that Paar had him on national television, it was what happened afterwards. The host invited him over to the panel to talk. That is what was important. At that time, such a display of integration was unusual. According to the film, it blew the NBC switchboard out. Because of his new notoriety, CBS newsman Mike Wallace did a profile of him.

From there it was on to the likes of Ed Sullivan and Merv Griffin. Greg, as his friends called him, also wrote an autobiography called Nigger, co-written with Robert Lipsyte. Amazingly, in nearly sixty years, that book has never been out of print.


At this point in the film, director/writer Andre Gaines begins to describe his subject’s transition from a pointed stand-up comic to a socio-political activist. As the sixties heated up, it wasn’t enough for Dick Gregory to say things like, “Football is the only place where a black man can knock down a white man and 40,000 people cheer.” Or, in satirizing liberals, “They all say, some of my best friends are colored, but there just aren’t that many of us.” Or in pointing out the hypocrisy of the court system: “A black guy robs a bank of $20,000 and he gets four years in Alcatraz. A white guy embezzles 3 million and he gets three years.” As civil rights demonstrations broke out in the south, Greg began to empathize with what was happening. As he put it, since he was from the north, he was not really aware of how bad the Jim Crow situation was down south. Even though he was making a lot of money at this time and he was peaking in his professional career, he decided that, whatever the consequences, he was going to get involved with the struggle for civil rights.

And he began to adjust his humor as this happened: “A white guy kills 2 black demonstrators with his car and the cop arrests the dead guy 500 yards away for leaving the scene of an accident.” He did civil rights work first for Medgar Evers, who he very much admired for his voter registration drives. Gregory also became involved with the famous case of the three missing civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Mississippi—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. He suspected the sheriff’s office was involved. He then offered a reward for information on the case. The FBI followed his lead of offering reward money. It worked. The bodies were found and the case was solved.

The film notes that his publicist sued him at this time, since Greg had sacrificed $100,000 worth of appearances—the equivalent of about a million bucks today—in order to work the South with Medgar. At this time, Gregory was getting $5,000 per nightclub/concert appearance. Instead, he chose to risk getting arrested by participating in civil rights drives in places like Mississippi and Alabama.

As the film shows, he did get arrested. Beyond that, he got his arm broken while being battered with a baseball bat. (Dick Gregory and Mark Lane, Murder in Memphis, ebook version, p. 29) He was very much depressed when Evers was assassinated in the summer of 1963. But he pressed on, getting arrested even more. As he put it, what these activists were doing was more important than what he was doing. When the famous 1965 Watts riots broke out in Los Angeles, he said on TV, “I just got back from Los Angeles, Vietnam.” The film dramatizes his message at the time. Greg was saying that this was not a problem confined to the black community, it was an American problem. The film then juxtaposes excerpts from rioting in Harlem in 1964 with those from Ferguson in 2014.

From here, the film begins to show that, as Gregory now became associated with Martin Luther King, like King, he began to become a vociferous critic of the Vietnam War. And as this occurred, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI began to keep files on the comedian; they also tapped his phone and drew up methods of neutralizing his impact. Greg decided that, for this particular anti-war message, he had to speak at colleges and universities. He began to attract large crowds and he would harangue the United States for building this Military Industrial Complex and using it against the people of Vietnam. The regents of the University of Tennessee banned him from speaking on campus. They said he was an “extreme racist” and his presence would insult much of the state’s citizenry. The students sued and they hired noted radical lawyer William Kunstler to present their case. They won in court and Gregory finally spoke there in 1970. In 1969, Gregory spoke at the huge moratorium against the war in Washington DC.

Not mentioned by the film are the comedian’s political races. Dick Gregory (unsuccessfully) ran against Richard J. Daley for the office of mayor of Chicago in 1967. He then ran as a write-in candidate for the President of the United States in 1968. (Gregory and Lane, p. 7) In some states, Mark Lane was his running mate. In some other states, his running mate was Dr. Benjamin Spock, the famous pediatrician. Gregory later wrote one of his many books about this campaign. That election attempt landed him on Richard Nixon’s enemies list.

As the film depicts, King’s assassination resulted in a huge wave of riots in well over 100 cities across America. The year 1968 almost brought the United States to a point of civil war. Gregory humorously commented on this state of siege. On stage, he would bring out a large violin case. He opened it and pulled out a tommy gun. He then pulled out a bow and started playing the machine gun.


At this point, the film notes that one of the methods Greg used to protest the war was by fasting. And I thought that it would be at this juncture that writer/director Andre Gaines would cut to the event that was probably the crystallization of Greg’s political career. I am, of course, referring to the night of March 6, 1975. That was when the Zapruder film was shown for the first time on national television. The three main guests that night on the program Good Night America were Geraldo Rivera as host, Robert Groden as the photo technician who had recovered a copy of the film from Life magazine, and Dick Gregory. It is not an understatement to say that the showing of this film on national TV electrified America. It put the Kennedy assassination back on the national agenda. It now became a topic of conversation at lunch and around water coolers at work.

By this time, Dick Gregory had become convinced that something had gone politically wrong with America after 1968. And, on top of that, the fact that JFK, Malcolm X, King, and Bobby Kennedy had all been snuffed out in a span of five years—that was just too much to swallow as simply a coincidence.

Gregory had known King and President Kennedy. Greg was at the March on Washington, which was sponsored by the White House and at which King had spoken so memorably. (Gregory and Lane, p. 6) He had been asked to come down to Birmingham in 1963 for the huge demonstration that several civil rights leaders had combined forces on. President Kennedy called him at home and asked him not to go, since they were working on a solution to the conflict and further demonstrations could imperil it. Greg appreciated the call, but said he felt he had to go. (ibid, pp. 30–33)

As the comedian told this reviewer, when he returned from Birmingham, his wife told him that Kennedy had called again and wanted him to return his call the moment he got in. Gregory noted the late hour, but his wife said JFK told her it did not matter what time it was. So Dick Gregory called the White House and Kennedy picked up the phone. The president said to the comedian words to the effect that he needed to know everything that happened in Birmingham. Greg went on for about ten minutes describing the whole ugly mess. When he was done, Kennedy replied with “Oh, we’ve got those bastards now!” At this comment, Gregory started weeping. (2003 Interview with Joe Madison and Gregory in Washington on WOL Radio One)

This is probably the reason he was quite interested in Kennedy’s assassination. But Greg was even closer to King. And the film shows them on stage together. In 1977, Mark Lane and Dick Gregory combined to author a book on King’s assassination. At that time, it was titled Code Name Zorro, since they had learned from FBI agent Arthur Murtaugh that “Zorro” was the FBI’s moniker for King. When it was republished in a revised version in 1993, the volume was now titled Murder in Memphis. To this day, it is a seminal book on the King case.

Very early in that volume, Gregory notes that it was when King turned against the Vietnam War that his image in the public mind was altered.

When King made his famous speech on April 4, 1967, in New York condemning the conflict in Vietnam, he was now perceived as an enemy of the Power Elite. (Gregory and Lane, p. 6) Later in the book, Greg outlines how even those involved in the civil rights movement were taken aback by King’s harsh stand on the Vietnam issue, for the simple reason that they knew that Vietnam had become President Johnson’s personal fiefdom. He was the one who had escalated that war to a magnitude beyond President Kennedy’s imagination. These other civil rights leaders understood that there was a danger that Johnson would take King’s condemnation as a personal assault and the president would turn his back on their cause. (Gregory and Lane, p. 51) And as Greg said so perceptively later in that book, King was expanding his vision of American civil rights to universal human rights. (ibid, p. 56)

King’s anti-Vietnam War speech was criticized by both the New York Times and Washington Post. It’s hard to comprehend today, but both of those MSM outlets were still supporting what Johnson was doing in Indochina at that time. (Click here for details) As Gregory notes in Murder in Memphis, it was William Pepper’s famous photo essay in Ramparts magazine that had energized King in this regard. (Click here for details)


But as Gregory also points out in Murder in Memphis, the antipathy for King amid the Power Elite was exponentially increased when he also announced his plans for a Poor People’s March in Washington. There was a good reason for this march. As many commentators have noted, what had happened under Johnson was simple to comprehend. And, in fact, he himself knew it. Johnson’s vision of a Great Society had crashed on the shores of Da Nang in Vietnam. Or as King himself had declared:

Many of the very programs we are talking about have been stifled because of the war in Vietnam. I am absolutely convinced that the frustrations are going to increase in the ghettoes of our nation as along as the war continues. (Gregory and Lane, p. 54)

In other words, as King said to newsman Sander Vanocur, the dream he talked about in his March on Washington speech in 1963 had, in some respects—between the race riots and Vietnam—become a nightmare. As Gregory noted, the Poor People’s March posed the possibility of exposing this nightmare, and not just to LBJ, but congress. In fact, Murder in Memphis contains an appendix in which Senator Robert Byrd made a vituperative speech against it. (Speech of March 29, 1968) The Poor People’s March provoked meetings at the White House, the Department of Justice, the Pentagon, the Metropolitan Police, and the FBI. (ibid, p. 57; the best book on this is probably Gerald McKnight’s The Last Crusade published in 1998) The combination of King’s assassination, plus the massive interference and surveillance with the march turned it into a failure.

Dick Gregory was correct when he described King as turning in his last years towards a different agenda. About that there should be little or no doubt:

In a sense you could say we are engaged in a class struggle, yes. It will be a long and difficult struggle for our program calls for a redistribution of economic power…I feel that this movement in behalf of the poor is the most moral thing—it is saying that every man is an heir to a legacy of dignity and worth. (Speech of March, 1968)

Or as King—echoing Bobby Kennedy—put it more succinctly: “What good it is to be allowed to eat in a restaurant, if you can’t afford a hamburger.” (Sylvie Laurent, King and the Other America, p. x) As Gregory wrote in Murder in Memphis, the dilemma that King was trying to expose was multi-dimensional. It not only would pose problems for Johnson, the White House, and Congress, but it would probably be an international problem. As the comedian wrote:

What would this do to our image as the richest nation in the world? What about those countries who were not aware of America’s racial problems of poverty and hunger? … White reaction to the planned Poor People’s March was astonishing. A headline in Readers’s Digest magazine a few days before King was killed read, “The United States may face a civil crisis this April when a Poor People’s Army pitches camp in the nations’ capital. (Gregory and Lane, p. 57)

As Dick Gregory was saying, and as Sylvie Laurent amplified later, King was now trying to stretch his populist coalition. And MLK explicitly stated it in his own terms:

The unemployed poverty-stricken white man must be made to realize that he is in the very same boat with the Negro. Together, they could exert massive pressure on the government to get jobs for all. Together, they could form a grand alliance. (Laurent, p. 8)

Due to King’s murder and the powerful forces arrayed against what was left of the Poor People’s March, it failed. As Laurent wrote:

On June 24, 1968, the makeshift housing Martin Luther King Jr. had dreamt of, built on the mall in Washington DC and known as Resurrection City was wiped out. Police tear gas filled the air. Hundreds of people were arrested. Bulldozers smashed the plywood shacks. (Laurent, p. 1)

As Richard Nixon later said, it was that image and the dispersal of those people that combined to help elect him. (ibid) The grand alliance King was designing ended up dissipated. The reverse, namely Nixon’s southern strategy, was later used by Ronald Reagan, and then given broadcast voice by Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. King’s unification strategy was now somewhere in the ozone. Roger Ailes’ and Pat Buchanan’s polarization policy ruled the day.

That would have been a powerful coda with which to end The One and Only Dick Gregory.


The only trace of this that I could detect was near the very end of the film. On a last kind of 2015 comeback tour, two years before Greg died, there is a brief glance at Pepper’s book The Plot to Kill King on a chair. If I missed something, I hope someone can remind me of it.

So, what does approximately the last third of the film deal with? Gregory turning into a fitness expert and a health foods businessman. He moved his family to a forty-acre farm in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1973. He began to sell vitamins and nutrition products. He also was one of the first to argue for the primacy of natural water in everyone’s diet. He stopped playing nightclubs and there was no more alcohol consumption or smoking for him. Harking back to his college days, he became an avid runner. And his cause now was to erase world hunger. He fasted for that one also.

He created something called the Bahamian Diet nutrition drink. This ended up being very successful. After having some legal problems in the mid 1980’s which tied up much of his assets, he settled the lawsuit and sold the business for millions.

But Greg never really lost his affinity to protest injustice. Another part of his life was devoted to exposing the CIA/cocaine scandal of the late nineties. At that time, he actually went out to CIA HQ in Langley, Virginia, and unspooled yellow tape around the building. Because as he said, “We know where the criminals are.”

Andre Gaines’ film is a passable chronicle of the showbiz side of Dick Gregory, but it does not do justice to what made the man the true icon he was. Perhaps that was the price of getting people like Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle and Kevin Hart to appear. If it was not, then Gaines made a mistake. His film should be called The One and Only Dick Gregory (Censored Version).

Last modified on Tuesday, 12 October 2021 04:01
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today (2018), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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