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BOND: Dick Gregory, welcome to Explorations in Black Leadership.
GREGORY: Thank you.
BOND: I'm going to begin with a few questions about the decision in Brown v. the Board of Education in 1954. You were three years out of high school when this decision was handed down.
GREGORY: May the 17th.
BOND: At the time, what did you think it was going to mean?
GREGORY: I didn't. The shock -- I mean, the legis... -- the world was stunned, you know what it was like. Nothing in your thought pattern went past what was happening. I mean people who couldn't read and write, people who -- who didn't -- just something. I mean, World War III couldn't have gotten more drama than that day. You just didn't know. I mean, it never even led to that. In other words, if you wake up one day and it's like 150 degrees, you're so busy dealing with that, you're not dealing with the fact that there's going to be snow this winter. But that was just the -- and everyone was talking and -- and can you imagine if the news media would have been then like it is now? I mean, remember, this was just, you know, you just had the three networks and there wasn't no such thing as no hourly news and -- and then all the talk shows. But you knew something had happened. We didn't know what it was, mainly because most folks never saw this coming down the pike, you know, I mean -- only the folks who were really up on the whole struggle --
BOND: So it was a big surprise to you?
GREGORY: To everybody. I never knew there was a case going on, you know. And then, bip, it came down and you just -- it was just there that day.
BOND: And what did you think would happen as a result of this case?
GREGORY: I hadn't thought, I just hadn't -- you remember, you see, I lived in a rigid, segregated pattern, not to the extent where you had to walk out the house and worry about being lynched. But our pattern in St. Louis was more so rigid than many places in the South ‘cause in the South you had restaurants you could go to that were segregated. You had movies you could go to that you could sit -- in St. Louis you couldn't go to no white restaurants. You couldn't go to no white movies. I mean, rigidly segregated. If you went downtown to the department stores and to buy a hat or pair of shoes, you couldn't try them on. You just had to buy them in size -- and you couldn't bring them back. And so it was that whole kind of pattern. I was born in 1932, and I went to college in 1952, a white college. And it was the first time in my life I didn't have to call white folk "Mr." or "Mrs." Now, there was no demand that you do, but we was always taught it's safer, you know?
BOND: To go along --
GREGORY: To behave yourselves. And it was the first time white folks had to call me by my name and that just? You know, I mean you're not, "Hey you!" "Hey boy!" "Hey coon!" "Nigger this," "Nigger that." And so that was the background that I had come up in. And so, just reading the headlines, you added more to it because at that time I didn't know that white folks had no control over the press. I just thought we didn't, but I didn't think white folks would tolerate the misinformation. I didn't think the white folks would tolerate the fact that Henry Kissinger was indicted in Paris, France, for murder and that wasn't in American newspapers. And let me put this in -- it came out of the Hague Court pertaining to it what happened in South America. And whatever left-wing people been killed. Well, they found documents when they started arresting them guys to prove that they was carrying out his orders. Well, I don't want to discuss that, but the reason I'm bringing it up, not one American newspaper touched that until nine months later the Village Voice ran a front page story to say, "How can you try Henry Kissinger for murder?" So coming in a rigid segregated pattern, I used to laugh at the some of the stuff in black newspapers, but I didn't think that white newspapers could be so outrageous with switching facts. So when you saw the front page of all the headlines, you knew something big was about to happen.
BOND: Now when you look back at it, fifty years in the future, today, at -- what does it seem to have meant to you over the passage of those fifty years? What did the Brown decision mean, what does it mean today?
GREGORY: It brought us to where we are now, that America is a better place. You know -- you know, in the old days people used to have a system where they'd ring the bell to let you know dinner is served. You know, and everybody would jump up and you'd wait for the bell instead of saying, "At five o'clock today we're going to eat." That was like the bell ringing that there's a new menu. Not it might not be what I wanted, but to the folks that didn't want it at all, that was horror for them. You see it had more effect on white folks than black folks.
BOND: How so?
GREGORY: Because at all once, all of the stuff that they had conjured up in their head about Negroes, all at once it now -- "You mean they going to be next to my children?" "Yeah, they're going to be next to your children, if the Army got to take a gun and do it." And it never dawned on them that, "Wait a minute, if these Negroes is as dumb as we know they are, and my white school is as good as I know it is, then good schools will flunk out dumb people."
But now anytime you're telling me that a dumb black child of mine is going to mess up your school -- your school, in the first place, but -- so all of that ignorance, all of that meanness, all of that bitterness, which you never had to think about -- and then all at once for years after slavery, where black folks had just gone along, there were no rumbles.
And so, it was just this quiet atmosphere with all this mess going on underneath. So now all at once -- for instance, I used to look at a bus with white children, passed by me, taking them to a good white school. And then -- and they just said "bussing" then. And then when I had to get on the bus, they changed the word to "forced bussing." Then you start seeing the meanness and the hatred and then you know that you're in for a struggle ‘cause at the time I didn't know there was a thing called white supremacy and most of the white folks that participate in all that hate, they don't know anything about it.
Because if all black folk disappeared from America, the poor white folk would catch hell. ‘Cause somebody going to be this boy's nigger.
BOND: I want to talk about your early life and people who influenced you. Now, I know your mother was a big, big influence on you and typically mothers and dads are. But what influence did your mother have on you?
GREGORY: Well, I didn't realize the influence she had on me would be the same influence that King had.
GREGORY: She loved everybody. She believed in God. She didn't believe in hatred or bitterness. She was always laughing, always happy. Sad in her heart because of my father, the guy she loved -- and he was never home. As a matter of fact, he was a cook, he ran on the road. Matter of fact during the Depression, my daddy made about $8,000 a year. If there was ten master cooks in the world, he was between one and five. Matter of fact, when he -- if he got off the boat in England, it was a violation for him not to report to Buckingham Palace to see if they needed his services for a party or something.
But we never saw none of that. He was a gambler, a hustler. And with all of that, she just, you know, she raised us in an atmosphere -- and I look back now and I would ask certain questions. "Honor your mother and father." I'll say, "I'll never honor him!" She said, "You have to!" I said, "No, I'll honor my mother and father if they're honorable." And I didn't ask her the question then, but if she was alive I'd ask her now, "Should Hitler's children honor him?"
BOND: What would she say?
GREGORY: If I saw a six-year-old girl get raped by a man, and he took an axe and chopped ‘em up, should his children honor him? She would say "Yeah, because of -- the Bible said." That's how she justified wars, man. I mean I couldn't understand a woman that didn't believe in killing, but I say, "Well, how do you justify war, Mom?" "The Bible said there'll be wars and rumors of war."
BOND: Oh, yes, okay.
GREGORY: I mean pure ignorance, you know. But she also said to me, "You're not poor. You're just busted, you're just broke." And then she explained to me and to the rest of the children, "To be poor is a mental condition and to be broke is a temporary situation." And so that kind of hit me and stuck with me. I know now that poverty and spirituality don't go together, so anybody who's in poverty, you don't know God. That ain't my law, it's a universal law. I mean -- I mean, there's certain things that nobody have control over and this is the problem with racism, with prejudice that affects you in segregation because it kind of molds my mindset. And then I have to spend 90 percent of my time overcoming that.
I remember my mother used to say, "You've got to be twice as good as a white boy." As I just grew up, hated that, and I would never have permitted that to my children because that's like saying to a black child, "When you go to a white store and get change for a dollar, they only will give you thirty-eight cents. But when you go to a black store, you demand a full dollar's change for a dollar." Something wrong?
BOND: Yeah, there is.
GREGORY: -- with that. My mother taught me -- let me tell you how this works now. Let's say I'm going to make you two cops. I'm going to make you a white detective then black detective. My mother had taught us, the boys, "Behave yourselves and that cop pull you over, don't talk too fast, don't talk too to slow." Now, nobody had a car, so it wasn't something for you to put your hands -- just -- she taught us that. "Yes, sir." "No, sir."
But she never taught me how to act when a black cop pulled me over. So when you as black detective pulled, we gave you some lip. "Nigger, how come you ain't out busting dope? What -- ?" You understand what I'm saying, how that works? She gave us instructions how to behave when a white nigger-hating cop that would kill you. But she never told me to behave when someone who look like me, who felt like me. And so these are the hang-ups that you --
And this is what Brown, that decision meant to me. For the first time you say, "We gonna build a new institution here," and then come in with that sledgehammer and crack that first crack, that's what that was. Now, we don't know what the building's going to look like, but this area had been cracked. And when you put a crack in here, phew, things change. Because it's a mindset that changes, not something for one day. It's that mindset that changes. I can walk up in the middle of the night, with my eyes closed, and know how to find my toilet at home because of the mindset.
GREGORY: Now let me just tell you the NAACP'S role in my life and then how this tunes in to the '54 decision. I ran faster than anybody had ever run in the mile, especially a Negro because blacks had been convinced that the short races genetically was ours.
BOND: The sprints.
GREGORY: And the long races -- and so I was just waiting, my mother was so funny. My mother didn't know Richard Gregory, Dick Gregory was the same, because everybody in the black community knew me as Richard. When I broke through so big and the white press had to write, they started writing about Dick Gregory. So a lot of folks in the black community didn't know it was the same person.
And so I waited for the Scholastic Yearbook to come out where they list all the records. And I went down to the Board of Education and the superintendent's name Hickey -- we called him Mr. Hickey -- and, "Mr. Hickey is the Scholastic Yearbook out?" He says, "Yes." I said, "Could I see it?" And he said "Yes, you can have it." So he go get it, and I look through it and I find a mile and there's a white boy, out of New Jersey. So I said, "No, they must have a special place for my type." And I looked through, and I took every page of that book and looked, and I wasn't in it.
So Mr. Hickey was walking out and he said, "Dick, you still there?" and I said, "Yeah, I don't see my picture in it." He says, "Oh, you was at the Negro meet. It don't count." And so I looked at him and I'm crying. I said, "Mr. Hickey, we had white timers. Did they think the white timers lied?" He said "No, no, no. We know it was a record. The Negro meet don't count."
And I grabbed him and threw him to the floor. And I said, "Man, I was born poor -- " remember, I was born before welfare -- "Don't know who my daddy is, don't like my momma, don't like my family, but I just hate being poor and the conditions that we in. And then I do something that's never been done in the history of the planet and I don't get credit for it. I'm going to tell you something, I'll burn this town down to the ground before I let this happen." Well, he got up, cussed me out. By the time the police got there, I was gone.
I went to the NAACP, Mr. Wheeler, and I told him what happened. He said, "Well, we fixing to have a march." Now remember back then it wasn't even psychic to talk about integration?
GREGORY: We was talking about conditions of the schools, overcrowding. That school had been built a hundred and twenty-five years before Negroes got there for five hundred white students. We there now with 8,000 black students. Yeah. I mean you go to one class, man, with a hundred and thirty-five people. By the time the teacher finished checking the roll --
BOND: Yeah the class is over.
GREGORY: It's over. I'm in an English class and the band's practicing in the room next door with no acoustics to block out -- that was the conditions. And so I said to Mr. Wheeler, and I said, "Well, let's do this here. Negroes love meeting, and we got a strange law called a truancy law that says if you're a man you have to go to school ‘til you're twenty-one, if you're a boy, a woman eighteen." And I said, "So you know black folks, Negroes, don't have to live up to that. Nobody's going to jail. So let me go and organize these thugs, man, for Brother Greg, and tell them, 'Now you're going for overcrowded conditions, okay. I'm going because my record didn't count.' "
And so, the first day of school in September -- two weeks before I had gone all over St. Louis and organized and said, "The NAACP, we going to have a march. And we going to shut the system down, and we going to shut the three black high schools down. And we want you all to go register. And as long as you're under twenty-one, as a man, they got to register. And as long as you're under eighteen, as a woman.
"And the second day of school we want everybody to walk out and I want you all to shut them schools down for me and we'll all walk to this direction and where we'll meet up with the NAACP, and we'll march to the Board of Education. No stealing."
Now I say that because back then, you know, the Italian organ grinder? Well, that was basically stands and horse and buggies and -- and we said "No turning that over, no. This is not a good time, this is serious." And they loved me and we did that.
Now, let me tell you how important that was and how important I realized the power that white folks have. I get arrested. I get home and Douglas Wheat got me out. My momma cried, "Richard, a white man came by here and said you're a Communist." I said, "Momma, how do you spell Communist?" She said, "I don't know." I said "Momma, if that white boy would have came by here? Did he have a hat on?" She said, "Yes." Asked my sister, "Did he come in the house?" My sister said "Yeah." I said, "Did she make him take the hat off?" She said "No." You as a black could not walk in my house, my momma said, with a hat on. She thought that was the most dis[respectful] -- she'd ask Jesus to take the hat off. But not white folks. So I said, "Mom, if that white man would have walked in here smiling and said, 'Oh, Ms. Gregory you should be happy your son's a Communist,' you would have baked me a cake." So if ever he comes by here again, he better hope and pray you here, because if he come by -- " and I don't know if it was the FBI, she said it was FBI, who cares.
Now here's what happened. The next day -- oh, the press was so busy talking about there was no violence -- not that we'd ever had violence; nobody could believe that these many Negroes could be this orderly -- so that's what the white press -- it was editorials -- "Who is this Dick Gregory?" They gave me credit for all these thugs not taking nothing. And the police then, "We were shocked, but they'd better behave." So the next day we walked down, everybody's there, FBI, police, and Hickey walked up to me and pulled me over and said, "God dammit, boy, what do you want?" And, "I want my record to count." And he kind of smiled, he said, "What? Your record? That's why -- ?" "Yeah." So he said, "Just a minute." He made a phone call, he came back, he said, "If you can wait here for an hour, we'll take care of it." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "We passed an executive order, in Jefferson City -- was the state capitol -- to integrate cross country today."
GREGORY: Hear me now, watch this now. Now, you can't integrate cross country, [if you] don't integrate track, don't integrate basketball. I said, "Look -- " That day, now a funny thing happened, funny thing happened. All at once the white schools started saying, "Jesus Christ, if we got to compete against them, let us have them." So here's the deal that was cut. This was later. The deal that was cut was places like Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and little hick towns, they didn't have to obey by this, but they slipped the little law through that said Kansas City, Missouri, and St. Louis, Missouri, it was okay to integrate the schools for the athletes.
Now why is this important to your question? In the 1954 Supreme Court decision, to this day, the state of Missouri pride themselves that they had already integrated before the decision. That goes back to the NAACP and my march. Now let me tell you something else that was interesting. Because of the quality of coaches we had, it was that St. Louis, and that incident with the NAACP and Dick Gregory, that forced them to integrate the sports that created Arthur Ashe. Is that wild?
GREGORY: Arthur Ashe is from Virginia, right? Where Negroes could not play tennis with white folks. Now how many Negroes back then you think played tennis?
BOND: Very few.
GREGORY: That's why the decision was made for him to come to St. Louis and go to Sumner High School when they had a good black tennis coach but where he would have --
BOND: Oh, that's right.
GREGORY: -- but where he would have white competition, that's what that was about. And it goes all the way back to that decision that they made to integrate, to stop us from demonstrating. And then they also made a deal with Mr. Wheeler, head of NAACP, that they would expand, they would put X amount of money down to increase Sumner. So if you go Sumner, you see that there's a whole annex and a whole new section that they put there. But that's how that happened.
BOND: How did your mother help you come to an understanding, if she did, that you could protest against this wrong that had been done to you?
GREGORY: She's so wise, man. Let me, what -- you know what you just said?
GREGORY: How does your mother? Say that again.
BOND: How did your mother, if she did -- ?
GREGORY: Thanks. Now, how'd you know that. She didn't. Man, my mother was so upset that I'd upset white folks.
BOND: But still, she had to have given you something? She had to have given you something.
GREGORY: Trust me.
BOND: That made you do it even against her wishes?
GREGORY: Please do not tell me what went on in my house.
GREGORY: You don't have a right. Trust me. Always, "Just behave yourself," you understand? She would never take me to work. She worked for rich white folks -- Jack Gordon, King Jobie, rich white folks. She'd never take me to work with her, or she said, "Just something about you, boy, that you would just not behave."
BOND: But where did this come from then?
GREGORY: They tell me it came from my daddy. I mean later, when I became famous and started running into people that knew him, they say it came from him. That he never -- I mean, he was never the head cook when he should have been, it was always a German over him and then he protected the other cooks. And he just, certain things he wouldn't tolerate. And then a guy told me one day this bad cop, man, named Tom Rend grabbed him, and he said, "You have to kill me." My daddy was gambling -- gambling house. And he called them a bunch of niggers and he hit Tom Rend, broke his jaw. And Tom Rend pulled his gun and the brothers said, "No, no, no! Let's take this out now -- " "I'm going to kill him, I'm going to hell jumping" -- that was the daddy that I had.
You know, when I met him later in life, I wouldn't have known that he was that type of a -- ‘cause he looked very cultured. If you said he was a professor of a black university, you would have to believe it.
BOND: But you said early on that he was an absent father?
BOND: So, how did -- in his absence, how did this get into you? It had to come from some place.
GREGORY: Just, just. No, it was something in me. Most of the stuff I was doing I had to hide. I had a big blowout with my mother ‘cause I refused to say the blessing at the table. And she said, "No, son of mine will sit in this house and eat without saying the blessing." And I said, "Well, I don't have to eat here." I was like nine years old. "And I'll eat anywhere I want to eat, and plus I don't like this stuff you serving anyway."
And to this day, I've been married forty-five years this year. And I said to my wife, "If you ever want a divorce, never mention it to me. Just cook some oatmeal in the house, and I'm out of here." And for forty-five years, man, if my children ate oatmeal it was after I was gone on the road, you know.
But, let me tell you something very interesting that happened. She grabbed me and pushed me. Because it wasn't her I was disrespectful to, I was disrespectful to God. And she pushed me and I called her a bitch. And she went off. And then the mother came through -- "How could you call me that?"
I said, "I hear Dad call you that all the time and you ain't never complained. I was here last week when he came in with that whore that he left in the car while he came in and stole the rent money to go gamble, and then three days later I hear y'all in the room making strange sounds. Don't you ever put your hands on me again. That's my money he's stealing, Momma." She hugged me, say she loved me. I pushed her back, "You don't love me." She said, "What do you mean?" Said, "I'm nine years old. I've been selling newspapers since I was seven years old."
I'd get out of bed every morning at four o'clock to hit my paper route. Papers then sold for three cents, so you can imagine what I was making. I said, "No mother would love a child and let a seven-year-old child leave the house at four o'clock in the morning while they slept. So don't tell me, I don't even want to hear it in no shape form or fashion."
And, where I got that from I don't know. But I just grew up and I resented her, I resented where I lived. There was something inside of me that kept telling me, "This ain't right. This is not right."
GREGORY: There was something inside of me that kept telling me, "This ain't right. This is not right."
BOND: Well, if it doesn't come from your mother, if your father's absent, where does that come from? Where do you get that? Where did you get the feeling that you can change things?
GREGORY: The school. The church.
BOND: Most people think they can't. Who -- did anybody ever say, or set an example?
GREGORY: Let me tell you two things and segue into what you said. So, now she's friendly ‘cause she's -- now she's my mother. And she says to me, "How come you don't want to say the blessing?" Nice, a friendly voice, not hostile.
GREGORY: I said, "Mom, I believe if I went to bed and didn't eat tonight, I don't believe I would die." I said, "Mom, I believe if I went to bed with no money tonight, I don't believe I would die. But if you held my nose and mouth for five minutes and I couldn't get no oxygen, I would die and you ain't never told me to thank God for oxygen." [So I resent it.] And from, all my life I've always said "thank you for the oxygen."
And then my wealth, my power to make money come from that date. Because I realized if oxygen is this important and there's a God that give me an abundance of it, the Ku Klux Klan, as evil as they are, don't get no less oxygen. The Pope, Mother Teresa, as nice as she was, don't get no more oxygen. And if 10,000 people walked in this room right now, me and you don't get no less oxygen. And if 40,000 walk out, we don't get no more oxygen. So I said, back then, "If God gives me something this valuable, then this other stuff, man, there's a reason I haven't got it." Now I didn't know it was racism, I didn't know it was the mindset.
Now let's go back to where'd I get this from.
GREGORY: Well, let me skip up. I called my wife one day from New York and said, "Babe, I'm getting on the plane. I'll be there." And my car's always parked at the airport in Boston, we live six to eight miles down the road. So I always call her when I get to the airport, "Hey babe, how you feel?" My daughter said, "Dad, Dad, hurry home, Yohance been in a bad accident; they don't expect him to live, and Ma's on the way to the hospital. She just left me here to tell you." So I heard her say they don't expect him to live.
And I hung the phone up, but while I'm hanging up I look down and I got on a pair of $22,000 boots. I've got a pair of socks on that cost $300. I've got a suit on that costs $22,000 -- oh no, $27,000. I got a shirt on, a white dress shirt, that cost $1,500. I got a tie that cost $750. I got a handkerchief in my lapel that cost $90. I got a belt on that cost $3,000. I got a pocketful of money and big credit cards, and I don't have nothing in my pocket and nothing on that can help that boy. And then as I was about ready to walk away from the phone, I thought about Reverend [James E.] Cook and the Antioch Baptist Church. He was dead then. He used to rip and run across the stage and yell and scream and sweat would come down. He had a hankie as big as a bedspread and when he got through with all of that, he stopped and he said, "When you try everything and it don't work, try God." That's -- I thought about that.
BOND: But before then you never thought about that, you never thought about God?
GREGORY: No, I thought about God, but I hadn't heard his voice saying, "Try God." I realized nothing I got -- see? Anybody, a whole lot of people be talking about God. Go to the Army and make the sign of the cross before you kill somebody, that ain't God. All these Christians love God, the Mafia, syndicate, scum of the earth. When these white folk decide to name them godfather, there are no Christians complain. Huh? Tell me about it.
And, so all at once now, I got to thinking about how'd I become a comic. St. Louis, Missouri? Man, there ain't no nightclubs. Only comics I heard was on the radio. Bob Hope, and I thought that stuff was silly. So then one day I had to do an interview and a guy asked me, "Where'd I learn from?" and it dawned on me -- the black minister. The black minister, fifty-two Sundays of the year. You don't get the same sermon. They so funny. I laugh, you know! They have you rolling, and nobody wrote it for them.
Okay, and then the black family, the old aunts come tell the same story every Christmas. And then I realize -- and then my school. People pulled you over, and they said, "I've been watching you."
And then also you must remember a thing called "joning" and "playing the dozens." And the dozens always was about your momma. Now the reason for that is, there was a time if a baby was born deformed, the woman always got blamed for it -- there was something wrong with the woman. Never the man. And so consequently, the dozens was about your momma, because if you was ugly, it had to be about your momma, never the father. Now here's where the dozens came about, the dozens -- If we go back to slavery, then remember the one white person who you were safe with was the white man that sold slaves, that was good white man. You know why? ‘Cause he couldn't bruise me no more then the Cadillac man can scratch a car if he got mad, ‘cause you ain't going to buy it. Okay, so my physical trauma came from the person who bought me. So now most white folks could not participate in slavery ‘cause they didn't have the money, so whenever a slave was born crippled or deformed, that one couldn't be sold, okay? So those poor white folks that couldn't afford slavery, they could come and buy a dozen of them. Now remember, a dozen of deformed, crippled Negroes, with that being blamed on the mother.
So that's where "playing the dozens" came from. "Man, your momma so ugly -- " It's never your daddy, and so everybody would jump on me about my momma. "Oh, your momma don't know where you daddy is, man." And then one day it dawned on me, "Man, you don't need to cry." So I'd see them coming and everything -- and Lord, it's funny now, except it ain't funny when it's about you.
GREGORY: So I would remember the things they said about me, and I would start saying them about them. "Man, your momma's legs are so skinny she ought to sue them for non-support." They'd been saying that about my legs, man.
GREGORY: And then all at once I realized that if I can get you to laugh -- I've got you. So all the way through high school, man, if there was a crowd out in the lobby, in the hallway, that was Brother Greg.
BOND: What I read said that you began your career in comedy in the Army.
GREGORY: Now, well see, remember that's somebody who edited this story and say it.
BOND: But --
GREGORY: By the time I got to the Army I had perfected it so that thugs, gang members would see me coming and cross on the other side of the street. Girls? I never had a date, man. Girls were scared of me because of this swift mouth.
GREGORY: So now once I get into the military -- this is -- I mean, I'd gone through -- I had no control over me then. And so I wore -- I would take white bucks [shoes] -- that was the thing -- and I painted them powder blue. I'd take a pair of long drawers and take a military canteen and a helmet-- a Section Eight meant you was crazy. And I had a guy make me a sign called Section Eight and I walked around the post all day like that because I was the -- I'd be Gil Lapierre in the All Military Cross-Country Meet and there was nothing anybody could do to me. But they told me that they was having a problem with the white folks on the base complaining. And he covered me up by saying, "Oh, he just an entertainer." So [he said], "You better go down to the Red Cross tonight and do that show and you better be funny or you going to jail."
BOND: And you had enough material to do a show?
GREGORY: No, no, no --
BOND: To come out of here --
GREGORY: The preacher don't have no material. Nobody wrote no preacher no jokes and I got up on the stage and I said, "You know? I got arrested today for impersonating an officer -- I slept ‘til twelve noon." That type of -- you know, corny stuff. If you read that stuff I wouldn't even admit I was doing it. But it was that type of stuff. Then I went to All Army -- went to Fifth District Division first, then the All-Army, and then the winner of the All Military -- I forget what they called it-- went to The Ed Sullivan Show, and God saved my life. I won it but I was so political they gave it to somebody else. And it's one of the few times back then I could truly say if I was white, they'd have gave it to somebody else because nobody had just heard of that type of politics, and those type of jokes.
Had I gone to The Ed Sullivan Show I never would have made it ‘cause I would have thought that I had arrived, and I didn't know comedy. I had to go back to a black nightclub in Chicago and learn the basic roots --
BOND: When you're learning this, do you have models? Do you have figures that you say I want to be like --
GREGORY: Yeah, let's go back.
BOND: -- this -- this person?
GREGORY: Let's go back what you just said.
GREGORY: Bob Hope. Remember now you said you and people out there see all these Negro comics, black comics -- they did exist and the ones that did, like Redd Foxx and them, man, that was blue [profane] stuff.
BOND: Yes, you never had -- you never worked blue.
BOND: Never worked blue.
GREGORY: No, my second language is profanity. But I learned something a long time ago in this game and I'll say it like I learned it today. I'm seventy-three years old, and they ain't had a new cuss word since I've been born. So if I want to deal with that, I'm limited, I'm limited. And so you got -- and that's the trick being used with black comics today -- you can only get on Def Jam, man, if you talking about some real nasty, filthy stuff that you never see white boys or white women talking about. And as a master comic -- which I am -- I know white boys is more filthy than black because they've been comics longer. But you never see them on TV. So it do two things. It says to the white folks out there, this is black family. And it also keeps you out of white nightclubs because white profanity and black profanity is two different things.
BOND: Now were there comics that you wanted to look up to, or took tips from, or wanted to be like?
GREGORY: Go back, go back, wait, wait.
GREGORY: I was the first Negro to work a white nightclub, so there were no national comics. You was national on the black circuit but being an athlete, I never went to nightclubs. I never wanted to go to nightclubs. That was sporting life.
BOND: Did you know about people like Pigmeat Markham?
GREGORY: No way would I know about him in St. Louis. Huh? I'd never been to New York!
GREGORY: Was Pigmeat Markham on radio?
GREGORY: Was he in the movies?
GREGORY: Okay, so where would I know about him?
GREGORY: I only start hearing about Pigmeat Markham -- once I decided in Chicago that I would be a comic, and then you start hearing about ‘em. But black nightclub didn't pay no big money. So if you was Julian Bond a comic in Atlanta, you had an audience there, "Man, boy, nobody's as funny as him." But you can't draw in Chicago. And so every now and then Redd Foxx and Slappy White and Moms Mabley and them, you heard about them, but that was on what they called the Chitlin' Circuit --
GREGORY: -- and when they would come to the black theater. But they would come with Miles Davis, so on, and they was never the headliner. And so consequently growing up there was no TV. So all I heard was Fibber McGee and Molly, and that whole white thing, of which I didn't care about. I thought it was silly. I thought it was corny. The woman was always the butt of the joke. Bob Hope -- you could always tell when Bob Hope was going to get into his racist thing. He didn't say Negro, he said, "I saw them two bee-boppers coming down -- " "Here we go again." And so there was nobody there for me to model after, and so I didn't hear profanity so I never had to use it on the stage, emulating somebody. And then what saved my life as a comic was Billy Eckstine.
GREGORY: Some days, I just have to go and sit --
GREGORY: And so, I didn't hear profanity, so I never had to use it on the stage emulating somebody. And then what saved my life, as a comic, was Billy Eckstine.
GREGORY: Some days, I just had to go and sit and get me a bottle of [water] and go to his grave. And I ain't been to my momma's grave. Just go to his grave and say, "Thank you, Billy. ‘Cause if it had not been for you there wouldn't have been a Dick Gregory." I used to look at Jack Paar. Jack Paar is the inventor of The Tonight Show as we know it. And nobody in the history of television was as powerful as this man. It couldn't happen today, but back then -- and I worked -- I worked Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Jack Paar was on five nights a week but he did reruns on Friday. So for five years a night never passed that I didn't look at Jack Paar. And when he come off, get off, I'd be in the mirror ‘til five o'clock saying, "What I'm going to do when I get on the Jack Paar show." And one day me and Billy Eckstine was sitting in Roberts Show Club in Chicago drinking and he cussed out Jack Paar, and I almost hit him. I said, "Wait a minute, that's my man." He says, "Man, Jack Paar would never let a Negro sit on the couch." And man, I didn't know that. I was so intrigued it never dawned on me that if you was black, you could come do your act --
BOND: But you couldn't come over there and sit down.
GREGORY: No. And I didn't know that. And I said, "Oh, my God -- " Well, you know in my heart I knew I would be on the Jack Paar -- but I mean I didn't have no evidence, I hadn't made it. I walked home that night, cried all the way home, cried for two reasons. One, I didn't know that a Negro hadn't sit down, but two, I'd watched that show for five years and didn't notice it. It was almost like -- it was just so happy that a Negro was there. You know [Clayton] 'Peg Leg' Bates. I used to laugh at him on the Ed Sullivan Show. Ed Sullivan Show no act has been on and I said, "Well, that's Negro." Ain't no white man with one leg gonna be rated as a big time tap dancer. That's just -- if you've got a peg leg, put a patch over his eye and put him in a pirate movie. So I walked home and I was so humiliated, man. I didn't even share it with my wife. I just never -- she just knew how I felt about Jack Paar. And it was almost like personally, you know, "How could I be this wrong?" And then one day Hugh Hefner brought me into the Playboy Club --
BOND: Where did he see you? How did he know about you?
GREGORY: Well, here it is important. I was working at Roberts Show Club, that was the largest modern show club -- black -- in the world. Because it was new, they had the same type of stage they had on Vegas. The button would go down?
BOND: Yes, I've been to Robert's.
GREGORY: And then the orchestra would come up?
GREGORY: So I worked there for like -- I think it was $15 a night, and now you had a lot of Negro entertainers that was working white clubs. See, at that time in America, you were not permitted to stand in front of a white audience and talk. So you could just be a dancer or a singer or a musician, but you couldn't talk to white folks. And so there was nobody comic, that had ever worked a white nightclub.
So Hugh Hefner came out because these black folks knew Herman Roberts so they come to give him some plate. So Sammy Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie, Joe Williams, and Nipsey Russell came in. Well, white folks bought up all the tickets for the first show first night, first show second night. Black folk came to the second show. I did three shows. Important Negroes ended up doing three shows. So Herman came and told me, said, "You got this weekend off ‘cause we bringing in a comic from New York named Nipsey. Boy, is he funny." I said, "I'll get to see how funny he is since he won't be so long." He said, "No, you know he's just going to be here -- " I said, "No, no, no, if he's taking my job, then I don't want him, you keep him." He said, "Well, wait a minute, wait, wait." I said, "No, no, no, no." So he said, "Well, I'll tell you what we'll do. There's a lot people -- "
See I was bringing in white folks in by -- the white folks from Northwestern University, from the University of Chicago. They wanted to hear this social satirist right? So they would come by, so he didn't want to lose me. So he says "Okay, I'll let you emcee." That's why, to this day, I have never emceed a show. All over the world, people bring me to the NAACP convention and say, "Can you emcee?" "No, no -- " People want to pay me. "No, no, I don't emcee."
So I said, "Yep." And the old man at Roberts -- old dude used to always be in the back, man, just always there -- he said, "What's wrong, young boy?" And I told him. And he says, "Let me tell you something." He said, "You got five hours to do a show or five seconds. You're a genius, son. You have to do in five seconds what you've been doing in two hours. You can do it." And I heard him.
So in between the acts -- I cannot be disrespectful, you go out and do my acts -- in between the acts I'd drop a little funny, boomp. Well, on the front row was Irv Kupcinet, all the big-time-money white folks, all the mob, and there is Hugh Hefner. And he heard me, he heard me sounding like stuff he'd heard before. Not no rhythm or joning, no rhythm or rapping. And so one day Irv and Corey, a white comic that said he wasn't going to work seven days. So they called me, my manager was white, and he got in touch with me and he said, "$50!" Now I don't believe there was that much?" I added $50 times seven and realized that if I was working seven days what I would make.
So, I never knew what the Playboy was, ‘cause I just don't hang out with white folks. I mean I got that from St. Louis. So even now, there's few times you'll ever see me hanging out with white folks. It's got nothing to do with them, I mean, it's just something to do with me, I just say, "Man, I'm just -- " You know, so. So I had one quarter left and it was a blizzard that night. And I get on the bus to go to he Playboy and I get off at the wrong stop. Now I have never, ever wore the same outfit on stage that I wear in the street. I just never done that, that's just the respect I have for the audience. And so what happened was, I got my suit bag with my outfit on and I got off at the wrong stop ‘cause I didn't know downtown Chicago. And I'm running and praying ‘cause that whole thing about "black folk can't be on time" and I got to go on at eight o'clock.
I don't trust black folk now if they're on time. I just don't know why you want to be validated by white racist systems. I don't believe in paying my bills on time, or being on time. I got my oldest daughter, man, I just -- I don't get along with her, not negatively, because she too disciplined. I don't like to be around disciplined people. But the super rich people ain't disciplined, and they ain't never on time.
And so I'm running and so, "God, please don't let me be late, don't -- oh, God!" All the things that you'd been taught that you have to do to make white folk like you was coming out, and I'm running. I slipped and I fell and I got up, and as I get up, about eight blocks down I see this big sign that said "Playboy" and this relief -- now meanwhile I don't know that Vic Lownes, who is Hefner's partner in -- had found out that this room, the Carousel Room, had been rented out that night to a group of Southerners that was in Chicago for a frozen food convention. So when Hef and them found that out, they said, "Well, just tell him he don't have to go on. So they tried to call me, and so I get there and I walk up the door and say "Where's the casting room?" and they say, "Second floor to the right."
Now Vic Lownes is standing in the middle of the floor to stop me. I don't know Vic Lownes -- just another white boy -- I push him out the way. I run in. I don't have time to change clothes, it's eight o'clock on the head. I run up on stage and I started doing my thing, doing my thing. And then started asking them, "Who are you?" They say, "We from the -- I'm from Alabama." "From what part?" I said. "Alabama. Oh Birmingham. Oh, I spent twenty years in Birmingham one day." And it was just one thing after another, after another. And I was just due for a half hour. At midnight I'm still on stage. At 12:30 they woke Hefner up. At one o'clock he was there, and I was still talking and that's when he decided he would bring me in for my own.
At that point [The New York] Times Magazine reviewed my act, and it hit the front page of Times and Jack Parr -- you know the New York Times [Magazine] comes out on Sunday -- Jack Paar saw it and went out of his mind. And so, that's the sad part. It gets back to my wife. The phone rings on Monday morning, "The Jack Paar show," and Lil -- I never told her -- she was like God had reached down and kissed her. She said, "It's the Jack Paar show, Jack Paar show!" So I go, "Hello?" "Dick Gregory, yes?" "This is so and so, producer for Mr. Paar," and he said, "Paar just loved this interview in the Times Magazine and wanted to know if we could get you on, fly you up for the show tonight?"
I said "Nope, I don't work the Jack Paar show." So then I started crying and I told my wife what had happened. The phone rings again. It's Jack Paar on the line. "Dick, Mr. Paar -- " I'm Dick. He's Mr. Paar. "How come you don't want to work the show?" I said, "Because the Negroes never sit down on the show." "That's not true." Well, in my head I could believe, because I'd watched him for five years and didn't realize it. And maybe he was saying he thought I said a Negro had never the worked the show. I was saying "never sit down on the couch."
He said "Oh, come on in. You can sit on the couch." And so I was the first Negro to sit on -- and let me tell you something I didn't know. If you don't sit on the couch and you become part of that family, your salary don't change. If I sit on that couch my family -- my salary jumped the next day from $250 a week, seven days, to $5,000 a night.
BOND: Really, that's what Jack Paar could do for you?
GREGORY: If you sit --
BOND: On the couch.
GREGORY: On the couch. Now let me tell you. Thousands of letters came in --
GREGORY: Thousands of letters came in saying, "We didn't know Negro children and white children were the same -- " Because where else do white folk -- my momma wasn't going to discuss her children around white folks. So where else would a white person hear someone like you talking about other than on TV? Well, you was never there to talk, and so NBC got so many calls that day of people who just loved it that they brought me back twenty-two times.
GREGORY: Yep, yep. And so I'm just saying in my life, little things have happened that led to something else that led to something else, that now when I look back and realize that I had no control over. So to go back to "where did I learn that from?" Well, you see, every time I'd go to the dentist, it was a black dentist, and a Republican. Most of the black business people was Republicans. They called you "Sonny" and they asked you about your grades, and they asked you how was school, huh? And so these folks became Dad. These folks, everywhere you would go, the black doctor, huh? The black barber -- "Let me see your report card," you know, that whole -- I mean before I became a celebrity in St. Louis, that was the respect that the black community had for a child. "Are you behaving?" You know. And it was kind of interesting because on my report card -- and my report cards scanned the alphabet, man. I don't know if anybody ever made a Z. I had a dude who flunked me in English. How you gonna flunk me in the only language I know? But on the bottom of my report card they would always put, "Richard is a good boy."
Now finally -- and I'm not trying to tie the show up with this subject -- it's lucky that I became a comic, you know why?
GREGORY: Because back then, black folks wasn't used to the word comedian or comic. So if you were funny, they didn't say, "Julian, woo! He funny." They said "That boy sure can lie."
GREGORY: Well, to a child "lie" has a negative connotation. I mean think about that. You know what the old folks say, "You know so and so plays the organs, you know he's funny." Well, to a little child, what do "funny" mean? Or you'd hear them say, "You know so and so -- preacher so and so, he's gay." But to a little child, what do "gay" mean? Laughter. So I grew up thinking to be funny, to be gay, man, that's what I want to do.
And so I made a joke out of it. I said that I was fourteen years old and in the gym and the gym teacher said, "What do you want to do when you grow up?" I said, "I want to be funny and gay." When I saw him unbutton his belt, I started running. When I stopped running I set the world's record in the high school mile.
But I'm saying children -- so all my life, all the adults, all the grown folks that hear me, and they said, "Never heard such in my life -- that boy sure can lie." But the odds -- because there was nobody that they could pattern you behind. There was nobody -- where would grandma have ever heard of a comic? They don't go to nightclubs, you know. They weren't on TV. There was no TV and so that was the odds that came through. But I knew people like Wheeler, head of the Urban League, the principal. And then as I start making a mark in athletics, then you exposed to a whole different side of that black --
And then also remember that if you lived in St. Louis and made $10 million a day, you still had to live in the Negro neighborhood. It might have been upscale, but you lived there. You could not live around your peers. And so we had all of that, that was there, that we ran into everyday. Across the street from me was the number one Negro restaurant in St. Louis where the doctors and lawyers ate. So I sit across the street and watched them. All that had influence on me. Every Sunday -- "Hi, Dr. Evans how are you?" "Hey, Dick how you feel, son?" And I worked over there in the restaurant. I washed dishes over there and I would see them and talk with them. So you could just see this whole wealth of integrity that I wanted to be like.
BOND: What you're describing is a life where race is very important --
BOND: -- from your youngest years. Now how has race consciousness affected you? What has it done to you?
GREGORY: It's made me. It's made me. I mean, the one thing that makes most black folks crazy is they try to -- you know, I resent going to a conference and race and racism is not on the program. I went to a world conference with Dr. Carlton Goodlett when he was alive on the San Francisco Sun.
BOND: My godfather.
GREGORY: Is he?
GREGORY: Brilliant. Oh what a -- and he was in the peace movement before anybody even knew what a peace was.
BOND: That's right.
GREGORY: So I got to East Germany and I'm with Lil and we're looking at the program --
BOND: That's where we met, at his house in San Francisco.
GREGORY: Oh, my God.
BOND: You had on that suit with the vest with the sleeves?
GREGORY: That's right, yes.
BOND: But go ahead, I don't want to interrupt the story.
GREGORY: So I'm looking, and I don't see the race issue being discussed. So I walk up and get on the stage and everybody was there, all the top peace people from around the world, and they had guards there and -- so I walked up on the stage, they're talking in German, and I pushed them out of the way --walked to the mike and said, "I'm Dick Gregory. I'm with the American Peace Delegation. And I resent the fact that 99 percent of all the wars on this planet is over race and there's not one topic." And then I stepped back and I really felt bad, ‘cause it was the first international conference I'd been to where they have interpreters, so it's delayed. And then everybody just broke into screaming and yelling and clapping and hollering and then the guy walked up and said, "Well, we're glad that comrade Gregory saw this oversight and we just want you to know that now race is on the conference, and you're the chairman."
And so, what I'm saying to your question, one of the problems that we as black folks have, and white too, but black, is we try to function in a system without recognizing that this is the most racist, sexist system on the planet. And it has an effect on you, and if you don't react to that, there's something wrong.
In other words, if I'm at the University of Virginia and I'm in a hotel on campus and I hear that three trucks of circus animals escaped last night and they're on campus, when I walk out, I'm conscious that there's some gorillas and some tigers. Now I'm not scared, but I'd be stupid not to be conscious of it. And I'd be stupid not to call my wife and say, "You know, don't come and meet me. I'll meet you in D.C., don't bring the grandchildren. Now, to not, I'm disrespectful to her. I would be disrespectful if you was coming to meet me, not to tell you this.
So when black folks wake up and don't have a discussion everyday -- nothing negative or vicious or mean -- about racism, where is it now, how will it affect me today, how will I be ready -- and that's how you all made it, man. You all didn't wait ‘til you got hit by a white sheriff. You all had classes, man. And one day the world will find out what went into this movement where they put eggs in your head. Who would? Negroes, white folks that was part of the movement. They had a dummy lunch counter and they went through all of that. Most folks don't know that, I didn't. But you was prepared, you was called, the Bible said "putting on the armor." Well, to live in America, black and white, and don't put on the armor, you're a fool.
So everyday, everyday, a day don't pass that I don't factor in racism and sexism. It makes me better around a woman. When I'm sitting at a bar, how can I say to a friend of a friend of yours that own the bar, and she's waiting tables, and I say to her, "Hi tootsie." But if there's a gay that's waiting tables and say to me, "Hey sweetie." Huh? So it makes me conscious. It makes me a better person, factoring in. It also lets me know that just ‘cause this person's white, it don't mean they're racist. But it means one thing to me that if a woman say her purse was snatched when that cop walked in there, his beautiful white brother that's sitting there that would die for me, they going to come to me first before they come to him.
BOND: Now, do you have a different style when you're appearing before a black audience, a white audience, integrated audience?
GREGORY: Yeah, but for one reason.
BOND: Different how?
GREGORY: Different how -- if you taught accounting and you went to an accountant convention, you'd have a different style ‘cause these are your peers, they know little bitty words, than you would if you just went to a professors' convention. If you was a brain surgeon, you would have a different rap when you went in a room full of brain surgeons than when you are you at the national medical convention and you speaking to all the doctors. And so a cab driver has one set of jokes around cab -- it don't mean he can't talk to everybody, but you know --the Jewish entertainers. I mean, I can go and when they go, and when they get into the Yiddish, I laugh because everybody else laughs, I don't know what they talking about.
And so, yes, I have a -- not intentionally. 98 percent of everything I say. Can -- let me tell you I got to old folks homes, and I can't talk to them like I talk to you ‘cause they hearing. So I got to slow up, and it really wipes me out, man, because my rhythm is used to -- and I got to slow up for the respect for them. You know a lot of old folks will refuse to wear a hearing aid, and so I have to talk slow enough for them. And so, sure, you have --
Now let me just throw something at you that's kind of different which blew me away. If I'm a cop and I'm arresting you, there's a certain procedure, and I don't expect you to move. I just found out about five years ago that if I'm a cop and I'm arresting a person that's deaf and dumb, all their life they talk with their hands. And so cops need special training on how to deal with a person who all they life -- and so they not hostile to you, right? And so, sure, there's a -- there's a certain lingo you pick up.
There's -- but, first, there's a difference when you talking to a hip white audience. I mean in the early days when I'd go to Harvard University and 99 percent of my audience is white, it would be altogether different when I'm talking to a white audience in the South. Man, do you know how long it was that I would never tell a reefer joke in the South? They didn't know what I was talking about. Compared to in the North. And so yes -- there's always -- you have to -- if you're really up on your game, you know, on top of your game, you will play to that audience that you're with. There are certain things I will never say, although I've never used profanity. But when I got to a church convention, I have to be conscious that I'm there. I have to be conscious of what that mindset is like, and respect that. And so yes, I'm always very conscious of it.
BOND: When did you first -- ?
GREGORY: One of the interesting things, I'm a world renowned vegetarian and they pay me $25,000 to come to the Burger King convention in Cancun. Now you think I would go there and talk about vegetarianism? No, I went there and talked about the workplace and how many Negroes and black folks eat burgers. Where'd I get that information from? NAACP Urban League. And four months later I started seeing Shaq and Cedric the Entertainer doing Burger King. So no, you adapt to the situation.
BOND: When did you first think of yourself as a leader? In a sense you've been a leader since you were in high school --
GREGORY: But I never did.
BOND: But you have to have.
GREGORY: No, no, trust me, you see --
BOND: Well, other people do.
GREGORY: Yeah, but you remember now, I was the entertainer making millions of dollars, okay. So I didn't need nobody to put a tag on me. You follow what I'm saying? And I don't say this derogatory -- I mean, "Comedian Dick Gregory," hey, man I have no problem with that in no shape, form or fashion. But then because of that I never had to be validated by the The New York Times or The Washington -- I mean as far as -- I don't get my propers now. But that don't bother me and you know most of the folks that did research on the Kennedy-King assassination and they wiped out, it never bothered me because I walked up on the stage, that a fascination thing wasn't my livelihood, it wasn't the only thing I could do.
And then the civil rights movement -- the reason I have so much respect for you and them guys there, y'all was there everyday. I came down when you called me, willing to die, but I'm making $25,000 a night. You call me to come to Mississippi to do a show, you wasn't making no money, couldn't afford it. I was there because my friend called me, because I knew the beauty of the movement. I didn't know the movement was going to have the effect that it had on me.
Let me tell you this wild story because public school stadium had made me in St. Louis, that's where I always went wild -- and became a human being.
Now the biggest thing in show business, and I'm in San Francisco and the AAU is having the Olympic tryouts in 1960. So I get off that night and I fly back to St. Louis, my old public school stadium, and I go there with a picket sign, asking the Negro athletes -- and notice as we do this interview when I talk back then it's Negro, talk now it's black -- and I said to the Negro athletes, "Please boycott the Olympics until America gives us a civil rights bill." And a couple of white folk call me a Communist, couple of them spit at me. But no Negro even looked in my eye or said anything. And I got to be back at work that night. I got on the plane. Man, you can't believe how rejected I was. Thank God for whiskey. Man, I -- first-class, whiskey free? I got off that plane -- and then a funny thing happened four years later. Two black men balled up their fists and the world has never been the same.
BOND: Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
GREGORY: The world has never been the same. The role sports played in the world is incredible. That went around the world. One day when I went around the world with a white friend of mine, just touring, the number one symbol solidarity is a black clenched fist. Now I picked up Harry Edwards' book, Dr. Harry Edwards, and in his book he says, "Everybody asked me how'd I get the idea" -- ‘cause he was the whole movement behind that. He said, "When I was in my last year of high school, the AAU was holding tryouts in St. Louis, Missouri, public school stadium, and my father said, ‘I'm going to keep you out of school today and I'm going to take you to see the Olympic trials.' And I saw Dick Gregory with a picket sign and that's where I got the idea."
Now let me tell you how that changed my life. I realized then how angry I was when I got back on that plane. And then I realized that God says to the farmer, "All I need you to do is just plant my seed. I will take care of the rest. Not you, will determine harvest time. Harvest is determined by how much sunlight I give you, how much water I give you, how much breeze I give you. I determine how cool it's going to be at twelve midnight. All I need you to do is plant the seed," and my life changed after I read that, because from that day on I realized that there's a God force that picks you to plant the seed.
BOND: Dick Gregory, thank you for being a successful farmer for all these years.
GREGORY: Thank you, my brother.
BOND: Thank you.