“A cop busted my cousin. The cop said, ‘Excuse me, sir. You went through that stop sign.’ My cousin said, ‘Well, I slowed up.” The cop hit him with a nightstick and said, ‘Now, do you want me to slow up, or do you want me to stop?’ He went to the other side and hit the passenger. Passenger asked, ‘What’d you do that for?’ The cop said, ‘I know you’ll get a block away and say, ‘Man, I wish that cop tried to hit ME.’ ”
That’s Dick Gregory. Funny, but with a sting. Timely, given the recent racial mess in Missouri. Telling a joke in which nobody – not the cop, not the cousin, not even the bystander – is an innocent party.
He and Paul Mooney come to Spirit Square Sunday for an evening billed as “Laughter and Education.” They’re too close in age to be a comedic father and son – maybe an uncle and nephew – but they belong to different decades. The 81-year-old Gregory rose to acclaim in the ’60s as a stand-up comic; the 73-year-old Mooney famously wrote for Richard Pryor in the ’70s and ’80s.
An hour’s conversation with Gregory sweeps you through history: his, comedy’s and America’s. Sometimes he makes you see your world in a new way; sometimes he seems to occupy a world of his own.
Hear him about the man he most admires: white abolitionist John Brown, who led an 1859 raid against a federal armory in Harper’s Ferry, Va. (now part of West Virginia), to obtain guns for anti-slavery battles.
“He’s number one over everybody who lived on this planet. He took his two boys to die for liberation and saw them killed. My birthday is October 12, and every birthday over the last 15 years, I’ve gone back there to say thanks. I go to Charles Town to stand at the courthouse. I walk to the tree where they hanged him and repeat his speech. He said, ‘If I was doing this in defense of rich white men, I’d be a hero.’ ”
But check his biography at dickgregory.com, and you get a revisionist view of the 1968 presidential election: “He ran as a write-in candidate ... and received 1.5 million votes. Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey lost to Republican Richard Nixon by 510,000 votes, and many believe Humphrey would have won had Gregory not run.” The site uselectionatlas.org says Nixon won by 511,000 ballots, but George Wallace finished third – and all other candidates combined got just 243,259 votes.
Gregory has been challenging accepted wisdom for more than 60 years, from the day he protested segregated track meets as a St. Louis high schooler. He went to Southern Illinois University-Carbondale on a track scholarship before being drafted into the Army. That’s where he learned to do stand-up at talent nights, and he never finished college.
Two events made him famous in the early ’60s. Hugh Hefner spotted him at a black nightclub and hired him to work the Chicago Playboy Club in 1961, which led ultimately to a spot on “The Tonight Show.” (A joke that reportedly got him the Playboy gig: “Last time I was down South, I walked into this restaurant. This white waitress came up and said, ‘We don’t serve colored people here.’ I said, ‘That’s all right. I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.’ ”)
Then he published his first volume of autobiography, “Nigger,” in 1964. The dedication to his maternal ancestors said, “If ever you hear the word ‘nigger’ again, remember they are advertising my book.”
He has spent the last half-century swimming against prevailing opinion, whether about the assassinations of Martin Luther King and John Kennedy, the death of Princess Diana or the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. He looks for conspiracies and often finds them.
“I trust nobody,” he says of people who have traditionally held power. “The white woman did not get the right to vote until 1921, and that’s his mother and daughter and sister and wife. If you’ll do that to your own family, the world had better watch out for you.”
And he has shown support, most often by marches and long fasts, for feminists and antiwar protesters and captives taken by the Ayatollah in Iran. He slowed down 15 years ago after contracting lymphoma, which he says he fought with herbs, vitamins and exercise.
He’s patient, which explains why he’d have made the turtle an American symbol instead of the eagle: “It has endured. When the dinosaurs died, the turtle was around, and it’s still here. That’s what we were in the civil rights movement: hard on the outside, soft on the inside, willing to stick our necks out, slow and patient.”
And he says, with his 82nd birthday five weeks away, that he remains an optimistic man.
“People like me – and most Americans – represent light. The FBI and CIA represent darkness, and the reason they control us is because of fear. It’s like a room full of rats and roaches; when you walk in and turn on the light, they leave.
“Light threatens darkness. When the sun comes out, it smacks nighttime clean out of the sky. Any time the sun hesitates, and darkness lasts one-tenth of a minute longer, you violate the laws of the universe.”