Original photographer:
Charles Harbutt
Charles Harbutt

Bill Ganzel


Dick Gregory – The "Fool" Uses His Wit to Awaken Young Whites

Dick Gregory in 1968

From the July 16, 1963, edition of LOOK.
In the evening, two days after the funeral of his youngest son (age two months, dead of pneumonia), Dick Gregory, the comedian, flew from Chicago to rally the Negro community of Jackson at a mass meeting in the Masonic auditorium. About 2,500 Negroes and a sprinkling of whites crammed into the big room to hear him, along with Lena Horne, the singer, and a 9-year-old boy who said a Jackson policeman had arrested him and had twisted his arm until he called him "Sir." Gregory's speech lasted more than an hour. It was a joyous, bitterly funny, roof-raising monologue that brought the audience to its feet, cheering and laughing, again and again.
   "Tell 'em! Tell 'em! Tell 'em!" a voice cried, and Gregory, sucking on a cigarette, said:
   You folks gonna get the vote down here ("Tell 'em, Dick!"), and when you do, you're going to have more votes than the white folks. ("It’s true! You-all-right, Dick!') And when you got more votes than the white folks, I promise YOU that the Kennedys will be down HERE eatin' chittlins with you."
   Gregory bore down: "People, we're goin' march. Yes, and we're goin' get arrested. Maybe we all goin' get arrested. ("We will! Pour it on!") And if we all get arrested, well I still got two sons left – and they can come here from Chicago and get arrested, too!"
   And, at last, with the audience perfectly in tune with the rhythm of his speech, Gregory said: "You know that I was arrested over in Alabama. ("We know!") Well, I was. Now this white policeman, he put his hand on my arm. He put his hand on my arm, and do you know what I said to him? ("What'd you say, Dick, baby!") I said to that policeman, 'Get your hand off me, nigger!'"
   In the room then was a sense of Negro passion and power, a depth of feeling and expectation rarely acknowledged by white Americans. It seemed all the more telling because Gregory had inspired it with humor, which, finally, involves laughing at one's self. Had he wished it, Gregory could have suggested a march on the State Capitol, and the audience would have marched for him.
   But, of course, he did not.
   Instead, the members of the audience crossed arms, held hands and sang, We Shall Overcome.
Photo by Charles Harbutt, June 1968.

Dick Gregory at age 80 performing and rallying civil rights activists at the 2012 Selma Jubilee Bridge Re-enactment celebration. In his oral history interview, Gregory talks about how he became involved in civil rights and his on-going efforts to change the system. Photo by Bill Ganzel, March 2012.

In 1968, author Thomas Barry wrote that "[Dick] Gregory knows he is not really the Fool. 'Fools don't try to change systems,' he says. 'They try to explain and present them.' And Gregory wants some changes… Gregory is trying to show white America its peculiar madness."

LOOK quoted Gregory saying, "This country is so sick, the riots [in Detroit in 1967] have actually helped … or are you trying to tell me Henry Ford hired 6,000 niggers last winter as a reward for cooling it in Detroit in 1967?"

In March 2012, Dick Gregory was about to turn 80 and is still trying to show America its peculiar madness. He regaled audiences at the annual Selma Jubilee Bridge Crossing celebration with his mixture of side-splitting humor and cutting insight.

"Had it not been for Selma, there wouldn't have been Obama in the White House," he says. But Gregory doesn't agree with everything Obama has done. "That white woman that shook her finger in front of Obama's face," he says, "I ran for President in '68. I wish she'd have shook her finger in my face – I'd of ate her hand. [The crowd at Selma screamed with laughter.] Gimme some barbecue sauce! Oooh, this tastes good. Take the other hand and put it in my mouth, huh?"