Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Bold Actions: Bringing Richard Pryor to Washington, D.C.

BOND: Let's go on. How did you meet Clarence Thomas, now Justice Thomas? How did you meet him?

WILLIAMS: Now, that's an interesting story. Senator Thurmond got me a job at the Department of Agriculture in Animal, Plant, and Health Inspection Services where I was in my area, agriculture, which I understand very well. But they didn't know what to do with me. The Secretary of Agriculture at the time was John Block. And John Block said, "Why don't you put together this Black History Month program for the department?" I said, "Oh, I don't want to be involved in no race issues or no minority issues. My father told me to stay away from that because you are going to put me in a box."

And the secretary -- and I mentioned it to Senator Thurmond. He said, "Well, you know, it may be an opportunity for you." He said, "You can always shy away from race issues. Don't be afraid of that because it is a part of America's fabric." He said, "but, you know, I mean, embrace it and see if you can come up with some ideas because they may learn things about you." So I was reading the newspapers and I saw where Richard Pryor had been freebasing cocaine.

I had no contacts to Richard Pryor. Nobody. And I said, "Now, wouldn't it be interesting if I could convince Richard Pryor to come to Washington to give a straight speech for Black History month?" I said, "Ronald Reagan is getting beat up for his civil rights record and Richard Pryor is getting just whipped for his drug problem." I made about sixty-some calls and finally this guy by the name of Terry Giles called me back. He was the lawyer for Richard Pryor and I told him I was this big wig in the administration. I worked for Senator Thurmond. If I needed to get Senator Thurmond on the phone, I could. And we're interested in bringing Richard Pryor to Washington. We'd take care of all of his travel. None of this had been confirmed, by the way. We'd take care of all his travel and we'd like to have him come and sure enough two weeks later he called me back and said Richard Pryor would do it.

Oh, my God. I went running to Senator Thurmond and I said, "You've got to support me on this." He said, "Well, this is going to be a problem because people are going to see this further shows that Ronald Reagan has no concern for black people because he's bringing Richard Pryor in who he is a comedian, who's not serious, who finished freebasing cocaine." He said, "You're going to have a problem with this." I said, "But you've got to trust me, I can make this work. I can make this work. You asked me to be creative." He said, "But, look, I -- "

BOND: But, he never dreamed of that.

WILLIAMS: Oh no, he had never dreamed of it. So, sure enough -- I said, "But there's one problem that they insisted that Richard Pryor was willing to come if President Reagan would host a reception for him at the White House."

BOND: Oh, wow.

WILLIAMS: Yes. So, Senator Thurmond called Reagan himself and said, "I know you are going to get a lot of flack on this, but trust this young man. This is going to work out." And sure enough, when I finally presented it to the Department that Richard Pryor was coming, they flipped out, but the die had already been cast. The White House knew. Strom Thurmond gave his assurances. But I will never forget that Senator Thurmond called me into his office and we went out to lunch at the Sport Avenue Grill. That's where we had lunch. He said, "I want to tell you something." He said, "You're becoming like a son to me." I will never forget this conversation. He said, "But I have got to tell you this. If Richard Pryor embarrasses the President, you are out of here and you won't be welcome back to this city for a long time." I said, "Senator, I'm willing to take a chance." But I was naïve. I didn't know the fallout that could come as a result of this. I just wanted to make it happen.

BOND: Weren't you afraid -- Richard Pryor was full of profanity? His routine was full of the worst kind of words.

WILLIAMS: I was twenty-one. I was twenty-one.

BOND: But you had heard of him --

WILLIAMS: Yes, yes, yes. But it didn't matter. I wanted him there and when you want someone to do something, you forget about everything else. You are blinded. You have all these blinders on. I'll never forget when Richard Pryor got off the airplane, he was stunned that I was so young. And we got in the car. I said, "Look, man. Let me just tell you this. I got a lot on the line. You cannot be up there cursing and you got to give a straight speech because -- and I got to help you write it because there are a lot of naysayers." And so, Richard Pryor said, "We considered those things." He said, "I appreciate your inviting me, but I am glad to see you are a brother." He said, "I didn't think you was a brother. A brother got this kind of power? You close to Strom Thurmond?"

And so the first night Strom Thurmond hosted a dinner for us. We went back to Richard Pryor's room, and I have to tell this story. I'll never forget. Jesse Jackson called Richard Pryor and said, "Don't do it. Do not give your credibility to this administration." Mrs. King called, "Don't do it." Oh, I was in the room. I was learning another lesson. She said, "Don't do it." Richard Pryor said, "All my life I've never given a straight speech for Dr. King. You all have never asked me to do anything and here it is, this young brother invites me to Washington to give a speech and you're telling me not to show up." He said, "Well, you know what? I am going to show up and you all just have to live with it!" And so the next day at the Department of Agriculture, Richard Pryor spoke.

BOND: What did he say?

WILLIAMS: Oh, man. You should see the headlines. You can go back and trace this. The Washington Post had the "The Jester Weeps" gave the best speech ever in his life. It was his only straight speech in his life. Talked about King. Talked about the only march that he had been a part of and it was a Poor People's March. And I'll never forget this, as soon as the program was over, they were calling me Strom Thurmond because we had people in the audience saying the President's going to be honored to see Richard Pryor tomorrow.

And on the very next day, President Reagan had a reception to honor Richard Pryor. Over two hundred and fifty people including all the civil rights leaders were there and I will never forget when Ronald Reagan and both of them from from California grabbed each other and they both cried in each other's arms. That was the picture that captured it.

On that Monday morning, this woman called me. Her name was Diane. Said, "I am calling for Chairman Thomas of the EEOC. He wants to see you, but he wants to speak with you first." He said, "Man, I read about your bringing Richard Pryor." He said, "That's a heck of a thing to do." He said, "Man, you've got this place in shock." He said, "Man, these people don't know what to do with you at the Department of Agriculture. You should come work for me and help me develop you." And I went by on that Monday for an interview and I started working for him on that Wednesday. That's how I met Thomas.

BOND: I just can't believe this story. I never heard that about Richard Pryor.

WILLIAMS: Oh, that's what happened. Yes.

BOND: I wasn't living in Washington when this happened.

WILLIAMS: That's why Richard Pryor came to Washington. He spoke at the Department of Agriculture for Black History Month and they asked him in interviews, "Why did you come?" And he said, "Because an Agriculture employee, Armstrong Williams, asked me to and he promised me a reception with the President and I got that." And Richard and I remained friends until his death.

BOND: Really?

WILLIAMS: Yes. In fact, it was he who introduced me to Hollywood. Absolutely. He would bring me out to California. That is how I met people like Barry White, Jamal Woods, because I started bringing them in for different functions, but he opened me up to a whole different world. That's how I got access to Hollywood, was through Richard Pryor. And you didn't know that.

BOND: No, I never knew that. I never knew that. You know, I made a movie with him and I never heard this, but this is not about me.