Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influence of Racial Discrimination

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?

BOND: Right.

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."

BOND: Really?

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?

BOND: Yeah.

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.