By Harold Crawford
The Scene staff
Civil rights activist, comedian and St. Louis native Dick Gregory visited Forest Park’s Harrison Center on April 4 to speak on race relations, religion, gender bias, politics, assassinations, social justice and other controversial topics.
The 83-year-old spoke emotionally for about five hours to an audience of students, faculty and staff and visitors from his alma mater, Sumner High School.
“I only heard him speak for a few minutes, but it was powerful,” said Pacquita Mitchell, 52, who teaches social work at Harrison.
The African-American Male Initiative arranged for Gregory’s talk. He was originally scheduled to visit the main Forest Park campus on April 5, but that appearance was abruptly canceled.
At Harrison, Gregory spiced up his lecture with profane language, off-color jokes and anecdotes about his life, challenging visitors to think more critically about the information they get. He even invited them to use their cellphones to Google topics he addressed.
“His delivery was rough,” said Angela Roffle, 56, director of human services at Harrison. “But he’s Dick Gregory. He’s going to say what he wants to say.”
Gregory divided his comments into two main topics: “We’re here now, but where is that?” covered race and class from the Civil War to the present; racial tolerance, prejudice and ignorance; advancement of African-Americans on social, economic and political fronts; and what changed in America after the election of Barack Obama.
“How far have we come and how far are we willing to go?” covered education, social justice, the economic status of African-Americans; and social change.
“It was relevant because he spoke about how African American males are treated unfairly by the judicial system today,” said Sam Huddleston, AAMI coordinator.
Gregory’s talk followed a breakfast open to the public. Then he signed autographs, took photographs of admirers and posed for the same. He capped the visit by sitting down for a question-and-answer session with The Scene reporters. Here are some highlights:
What was it like growing up in St. Louis? “Well, in St. Louis growing up was like growing up in any other place. In St. Louis, you didn’t have to worry about anybody lynching you. Your mama didn’t have to worry about anybody lynching you. It wasn’t like other places; they just couldn’t rape a black woman walking down the street. … We didn’t see all the cold-blooded stuff that happened in other cities.”
What was your biggest influence? “I didn’t have none. … The movies, let me tell you something about the movies. … I was born in in 1932, and the biggest thing going in the ‘30s were cowboy movies. All the other movies I couldn’t relate to. … They were white folks. They was beautiful. … I didn’t know it was anything other than white women. So, I would go to the movies and see the cowboys. … The cowboys wore the same outfits every day. Lone Ranger never changed clothes, so I saw me. … I never ever saw a cowboy go to dinner. I never saw him with a woman. … I saw me. That’s the only thing I could go to the movies to go see and find something that I could relate to. … I never saw them in the house, I never saw them in a car.”
Why did you become a comedian? “I didn’t choose to become a comedian. … I was just like the funniest dude on earth. … I didn’t know anything about being a comedian. … Guys were just scared of me because I was good at roasting people. That’s all. There wasn’t too many options for black people. I just was naturally funny. I was the first African-American who was ever permitted to work a white nightclub, and that was because of Hugh Heffner. Before that, you could dance, you could sing, but if you were black, you couldn’t get a decent job where you could stand tall in your occupation. They didn’t care how smart you were if you were black. I had no idea what I wanted to do when I was growing up.”
Why did you run for president in 1968 as a write-in candidate? “I got tired of having to choose between the lesser of two evils. I wanted to do something about what was going on and not just talk about it. If you watch someone do an evil thing and just watch, and you don’t do anything about it, then you are just as guilty as the person that did it.”
What did you think of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? “King was the nicest guy on the planet. He put some stuff together. He never had a fight in his life. He took on the mightiest country that’s ever been created on earth without a gun.”
Did the civil rights movement have a positive impact on the black community? “Yes, of course. That’s the stupidest question I have ever heard. They used to be able to mistreat a black woman and just get away with it, but now they will have to answer to someone for it.”
The Scene staff member Harlan McCarthy contributed to this report.