Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Reflections on Brown

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.