Encounters With Dick Gregory: From Malcolm X to Howard Zinn

The late comedian, civil rights/anti-war activist, and nutritional guru Dick Gregory is remembered by Joan Rivers, Malcolm X, Lena Horne, Howard Zinn, Bill Lee and others.

Victor Lownes, Playboy executive

Carwash attendant no more 

…Dick Gregory, one of America’s top comedians, will never turn his back on Playboy, that I’m sure. When I booked him to appear in our cabaret, he was working as a carwash attendant. The spot he filled for us was the start of his climb to fame and fortune. (Chicago, late 1950s)

from Playboy Extraordinary, by Victor Lownes (Granada, 1982)

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Joan Rivers, comedian

Making a statement

That whole Second City intellectual snobbery made me furious–their contempt for comics in general, their scorn for me in particular because I had actually played strip joints. When Dick Gregory, at his height as a black stand-up comic, came to see the show, they were all ho hum. I was the only one interested and spent a whole evening with him, going to a party at Hugh Hefner’s mansion and then out to hear some black comics. He had just met Eleanor Roosevelt and kept talking about how she would not have had anything to do with him six years ago when he was a chauffeur.

The anger and bitterness in him were so great, you could see he would not last long as a comic. He could not keep himself from making a statement–and you cannot make statements through comedy…. (Chicago, 1961)

from Enter Talking, by Joan Rivers with Richard Meryman (Delacorte Press, 1986)

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Myrna Loy, actor


…I conducted a press conference at the National Housing Center…a statement urging President Kennedy to fulfill his campaign pledge to eliminate racial discrimination in federal housing programs….


…Dick Gregory came in huffing and puffing after a delayed flight from Chicago. I have never seen anyone in such a state: he revered Mrs. [Eleanor] Roosevelt and this invitation had come out of the blue. It was a delight to behold his excitement. (Washington, D.C., 1961)

from Being and Becoming, by Myrna Loy with James Kotsilibas-Davis (Donald I. Fine, 1987)

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Arthur Gelb, journalist

Warning of revolution

…I reviewed Dick Gregory [for The New York Times] when he made his New York debut in March 1961. At the time he was the only black comic who could challenge cosmopolitan white audiences. “They call be the Negro Mort Sahl,” he said the night I first saw him. “In the Congo they call Sahl the white Dick Gregory.” His act consisted largely of reducing racial clichés [ to absurdity, piercing the foibles of both blacks and whites with genial wit and no evident trace of rancor. At his best he was a brilliant caricaturist.

…on September 17, 1963, I suggested Abe [A.M. Rosenthal]  join me on a tour of topical cabarets to get a feel of what satirical comics were saying about our generation. After watching Dick Gregory’s act at Basin Street East, Abe said he’d like to meet him.

Backstage, when I introduced Abe as The Times’s newly appointed editor in charge of city coverage, Gregory dropped his comic mask. I couldn’t believe the change that suddenly overcame him. He glared at Abe with narrowed eyes and, in a deadly serious tone, he warned him to expect a lot of trouble in his new job. There was a long, uncomfortable pause. I could read Abe’s mind: Why on earth had I brought him here?

“Negroes are fed up and there’s going to be a revolution,” Gregory finally said. “The top of the keg is going to blow off here in New York.” Abe and I looked at Gregory as if he were crazed. Then he quoted from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech to two hundred thousand civil rights marchers in Washington on August 28: “There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.”

from City Room, by Arthur Gelb (Penguin, 2003)

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Karl Fleming, journalist (Newsweek)

Mocking cops

…Led by [Bob] Moses. SNCC had been trying to get Negroes registered to vote in the vast Mississippi Delta for more than two years. And now, here they were again, their small protest march—headed by Moses and [Jim] Forman, who had come down from Atlanta to try to help—heading straight for the courthouse…


…The cops arrested and jailed both Moses and Forman on the charges of disorderly conduct…

…Forman, Moses, and six other SNCC staff members who’d been arrested were handed maximum sentences of four months in jail and $200 fines…

Supporting them was the dapper, fast-talking comedian from New York, Dick Gregory. Though he was a national celebrity, he had left the big money of the comedy circuit and network TV appearances to go South and lend aid and comfort to the movement. He had been attracted to the civil rights movement by the Freedom Rides and particularly admired and supported Bob Moses. Gregory wore a pointed goatee, sunglasses, a white shirt, a Countess Mara tie, and a tailored Italian suit, and adopted a mocking manner with local police. (Meridian, Miss., early 1960s)

from Son of the Rough South: An Uncivil Memoir, by Karl Fleming (Public Affairs, 2005)

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James Farmer, founder of Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)

Comic relief 

“My brother has a blond, blue-eyed daughter.”

Dick Gregory slowly paced the flood-lit stage. In his hand was the microphone, which he had removed from its stand. He ran his fingers down his dusky cheek and went on: “Well, you gotta take some things on faith.”

The CORE audience roared. Gregory’s performance was a marvelous respite from the arduous labors of the 1962 convention in Miami. The harmony was almost eerie. Flushed with its victory in interstate bus travel, and savoring its new status as the cutting edge of the civil rights movement, CORE was a family once again–a big family now, but a family.

Hours before his show, Gregory had been in Lula’s and my room, bouncing my second daughter, Abbey Lee, on his knee. Abbey was less than eight months olds and she took after Lula. She had fair skin and blue eyes and her hair was blond and straight….

from Lay Bare the Heart: The Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement, by James Farmer (Arbor House, 1985)

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Malcolm X, Black Muslim minister

Dissing Muhammad

…Backstage at the Apollo Theater in Harlem one day, the comedian Dick Gregory looked at me. “Man,” he said, “Muhammad’s nothing but a …”–I can’t say the word he used. Bam! Just like that. My Muslim instincts said to attack Dick–but, instead, I felt weak and hollow. I think Dick sensed how upset I was and he let me get him off the subject. I knew Dick, a Chicagoan, was wise in the ways of the streets, and blunt-spoken. I wanted to plead with him not to say to anyone else what he had said to me–but I couldn’t…

I can’t describe the torments I went through. (early 1960s)

from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley (New York: Ballantine, 1964)

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Howard Zinn,  historian

Attacking white Southern society

Two nights before Freedom Day, I went to a crowded church meeting to hear Dick Gregory, who had just arrived in Selma [Ala.]; his wife Lillian had been arrested while demonstrating there. Armed deputies ringed the church outside. Three white policemen sat in the audience taking notes, and Gregory was determined to speak about them and to them in a manner unheard of in Selma–to show that it was possible to speak to white people insubordinately.

I traveled in those days with a cheap tape recorder….I recorded Gregory’s performance with my little machine.

He spoke for two hours, lashing out at white Southern society with passion and with his extraordinary wit. Never in the history of this area had a black man stood like this on a public platform ridiculing and denouncing white officials to their faces. The crowd loved it and applauded wildly again and again. He spoke of the irony of whites’ maltreatment of black people, whose labor they depended on for their lives. He said he wished that the whole Negro race would disappear overnight–” They would go crazy looking for us!” The crowd roared and applauded.

Then Gregory lowered his voice, suddenly serious. “But it looks like we got to do it the hard way, and stay down here, and educate them.” (1963)

from You Can’t Be Neutral On A Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, by Howard Zinn (Beacon Press, 1994)

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Lena Horne, singer and actor

Summer of activism

…Dick Gregory was also down for the [NAACP] rally [protesting the murder of Medgar Evers], and he led the faction there who wanted to go out in the streets afterward to make a more militant protest. Now Dick is a fantastic human being. He was flying in and out of the South all during this summer, accepting the risks of jail and injury and abuse on the same level as everyone else. And he did all this at the time his wife had just lost their second baby in childbirth. (Jackson, Miss., 1963)

from Lena, by Lena Horne with Richard Schickel (Doubleday, 1965)

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John Denver, country singer

Activist inspiration

We [the Chad Mitchell Trio] worked with Dick Gregory a couple of times during those years [the mid-1960s]. He was becoming more and more committed to ending the [Vietnam] war, and each time we performed with him he inspired us to get more involved in protest ourselves. We went with him to Washington to participate in that city’s first big demonstration against the war….


Dick Gregory had a lot to do with my increasing awareness of the problem with hunger….

Dick had acquired a kind of a stigma in the business because of the lingering fear that he was still the angry black man he had shown himself to be onstage at the crest of the civil rights movement. When he started a series of fasts, he seemed a bit crazed. First Dick had fasted for health reasons, because he had become corpulent, but then he fasted to draw attention to hunger in the world. For someone with his moral commitments, it was a natural progression, and I admired him for it.

Just after “Country Roads” was released, I was doing a show in St. Louis, which is where Dick is from, and he asked if he could open for me. I arranged things so he could. It was a great show–he was great, I was great–and we did it again, a few months later, at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles….

From Take Me Home: An Autobiography, by John Denver with Arthur Tobier (Harmony Books, 1994)

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Don Harron, actor

Tissue of lies

…The television play I was to do, Neighbours, was about a white couple renting out their London flat to a black couple. Dick Gregory was cast as a well-known jazz pianist.

I had seen Dick perform his stand-up routine more than once. Not since Mort Sahl had a politically inclined comedian electrified me with his up-to-the minute content. I was a confirmed fan.

A problem cropped up in rehearsal. Dick couldn’t remember a line of dialogue. My nights were spent…helping Dick learn his lines. He explained the reason for his difficulty: as a born rebel, young Gregory assume that everything he was being taught in school was a tissue of lies. Especially in history class. Thus, as a child, he learned by forgetting, discarding everything except the few facts that struck as true.

…As we all hugged and congratulated one another, Dick announced that he was off to Wales that evening to meet up with the great philosopher, Bertrand Russell. Russell’s secretary appeared and whisked him away for the meeting of minds. I never found out what happened as a result, but Dick, after his time in England, became less of a comic and more of a serious spokesman for humanitarian and environmental issues. (London, 1965)

from My Double Life: Sixty Years of Farquharson around with Don Harron (Dundurn, 2012)

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Knowlton Nash, broadcast journalist (CBC)

Out the window

The meeting [of moderate black activists] was in a Newark [N.J.] high school. Between two sessions, I happened to be in a classroom talking with comedian and activist Dick Gregory when “Mau Maus” [an ultra-radical group] crashed through the school door and began rampaging through the halls, smashing windows, and breaking moderate heads with clubs and rocks. Both Gregory and I ran to a classroom window. He pushed me out and I dropped the one story to the ground. Then I caught him as he tumbled out just moments before the screaming, swearing thugs burst into the room.

We ran to the street and, out of breath, watched others running away, some covered in blood, some crying, others going back in with their own bricks and sticks. A wan, sad smile came over Gregory’s face as he said to me, “Look, I apologize. They hate me as much as you. But you know, we’re not all like that. They’re the fringe, madmen on our side just as the Klan is on yours.” (1967)

from History on the Run: The Trenchcoat Memoirs of a Foreign Correspondent, by Knowlton Nash (McClelland and Stewart, 1984)

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Tariq Ali, New Left activist

Black consciousness rising

The black comedian, Dick Gregory, who was in London at this time had got very excited by the soldiers’ revolt [at Fort Hood, Texas]. We were discussing the situation in the hospitality room of a TV station, prior to appearing on the David Frost Show. The programme’s researchers were somewhat frazzled, but trying not to show it as we ignored their efforts to elicit what we intended to say when interviewed  by Frost. Instead we discussed the latest news from the home-front. Gregory predicted that with the conscripts in a state of disaffection, there was very little chance of the United States winning the war. He said that the Tet offensive had demoralized the rank and file of the American army and Vietnam would win. Gregory was particularly pleased at the effect the war was having on the black consciousness in his country. ‘In all other wars,’ he said, ‘including the genocidal wars against the native Americans, blacks fought as patriots. A man with black skin had to fight extra hard to prove he was a patriotic American. Now that’s over.’ (1968)

from Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties, by Tariq Ali  (Citadel Press, 1987)

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Raymond Mungo, journalist

Allies through the skin

Among those who did gigs to pull us [Liberation News Service] out of some debts was Dick Gregory, who deserves a whole lot more special mention than I’m giving him. It seemed this humane black man was always looking over our shoulders, from the day Marshall [Bloom] was ousted from the U.S. Student Press in Minneapolis through press conferences at Three Thomas Circle (“Gregory for President Campaign Headquarters”) and benefits in Maryland and Cleveland, to that hopeless Battle of Chicago. Laugh if you will at the image of white kids tagging after a black leader, but with Gregory there was no embarrassment, no unspoken or spoken barrier of communication. We had an honest relationship, allies through the skin…. (late 1960s)

from Famous Long Ago: My Life and Hard Times with Liberation News Service, by Raymond Mungo (Beacon Press, 1970)

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LaToya Jackson, singer and actor


Michael [Jackson] and I became friends with other people working on the film [an all-black remake of Peter Pan]: Dick Gregory….Dick taught us all about metaphysics, mental telepathy, and nutrition, starting us on a daily vitamin regimen. Each morning Michael gulped down his fifty pills in one swallow, then stood around laughing at me as I spent an hour taking mine one or two at a time.  (New York, 1977)

from Growing Up in the Jackson Family, by LaToya Jackson with Patricia Romanowski (Dutton/Penguin, 1991)

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Bill Lee, baseball player

House call

…He had been traveling across the country, lecturing on nutrition and had developed power-packed food pills. These pills enabled him to run fifty miles at a clip, while subsisting only on the pills, vitamins, and water. I had never met him, but someone…had told me that he was trying to get in touch with me and had asked that I be given his number. When I got him on the phone, I introduced myself, and he didn’t even say hello. All he said was, “Where are you?” I told him I was at home and gave him my address.

Fifteen minutes later, a brown Rolls-Royce pulled into my driveway. He popped out of it, walked up to me and said, “Hi, I’m Dick Gregory. You may not know this, but these pills are going to bring your arm back. From what I’ve read about your injury, I know that your problem is lactic acid. Too much of it has been stored in your system, and it’s centering around the injured area. It’s as though you had washed your clothes with too much detergent. You’ve got all this excess soap in you, and your system can’t get clean due to the build-up.” He took some comfrey root out of a bag and explained, “This is what you need. Take two hambones, put them in a pot of boiling water, and then throw in some comfrey root. Those two hambones will join together. Comfrey root is your key; it makes things whole.” Then, he laid everything on me, a variety of herbs in capsule form: ginseng, sarsaparilla root, goldenseal, ginger root, and others. He also gave me plastic packets filled with his food tablets. It would take me two handfuls to get it all down; I’d do thirty capsules and pills in one shot. Dick claimed they would neutralize the acid in my body. I took them first thing in the morning and, boy, did I get a buzz on. They gave me a tremendous power surge. I realize now that it was a form of megavitamin therapy, and that Dick was way ahead of his time. He couldn’t have been with me more than ten minutes. Once he delivered his gospel, he was gone. I never saw him again, but we’ve spoken over the phone. What an amazing piece of work! He cares about his fellow human beings and the planet. I like that program. And his pills really helped me. My arm came back as good as new. (Boston area, late 1970s)

from The Wrong Stuff, by Bill Lee with Dick Lally (Penguin, 1985)

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Jennifer Lee, actor

Energy and enthusiasm

Dick Gregory comes out for a visit. He talks about his new fast-diet and the importance of jogging twenty minutes a day. He drinks water and eats cashews; rather, he chews cashews and spits them out before swallowing. He wants Richard [Pryor] to invest in his company. Dick’s very thin, but he has tremendous energy and great enthusiasm. During the civil rights movement, [a friend] took me to hear him speak at the Albany [N.Y.] Civic Center. What has become of that once-large body and booming voice? Richard does not enjoy watching his cashew routine but he is nice to him. Dick was once one of Richard’s heroes. He leaves some of that powder and vitamins. We use it, but not for long. (Hollywood, 1978)

from Tarnished Angel: Surviving in the Dark Curve of Drugs, Violence, Sex and Fame, by Jennifer Lee (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1981)

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Teddy Pendergrass, blues singer

Nutritional advice

…I was grateful for the well wishes and the encouragement expressed to me [after a paralyzing automobile accident] in calls, letters, cards, flowers, and–of course–teddy bears. Friends who took time to see how I was doing and offer to help were like angels sent from God….

Some showed such incredible thoughtfulness. Dick Gregory, the comedian, activist, and entrepreneur, came to my home and offered his support as well as a lot of advice about nutrition. There were no cameras, no media. Dick was truly there to help, and I appreciated that so much…. (early 1980s)

from Truly Blessed, by Teddy Pendergrass with Patricia Romanowski (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1998)

Dana Cook’s collections of literary, show biz and political encounters have appeared in a wide range of newspapers, magazines and journals. Contact: cooks.encounters(at)gmail.com.