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Dick Gregory: Comedy as a Tool for Social Change
"If I had to say one thing I would want to be remembered for, it would be as an agitator.”– Dick Gregory, who died on August 18, 2017
For Dick Gregory, it seemed stirring up a bit of trouble let him know when he was on the right track.
In 2001, he told the Afro-American Red Star, “If had to say one thing I would want to be remembered for, it would be as an agitator.”
You wash clothes before, in the wash machine? Well you know it has a little agitator in there, right? If you took the agitator out and try to wash your underwear, you would just end up with some dirty wet drawers! An agitator down through the years has made the country, dirty as it is, still cleaner than it was because of the agitator.
Gregory came to fame in the early ‘60s as a regular comedy guest on The Tonight Show and at other venues, using his pointed humor to talk candidly about racism to mixed-race audiences. He also turned these words into action, marching for voting rights and performing at benefits for civil rights groups; protesting the Vietnam War; advocating against drugs and violence; speaking out on the flaws of the U.S. political system.
In 1968, Gregory even ran for President on the Peace and Freedom ticket with support from Hunter S. Thompson.
Throughout these endeavors, Gregory was no stranger to controversy. His activism, as we explore below, got him fired from a gig. It put him in conflict with NAACP. It even resulted in an FBI scheme to “neutralize” him with help from the American mafia.
Yet, Gregory never backed down. If anything, these obstacles kept him motivated to challenge the status quo.
Firing from the Galaxy Club
A person who would describe himself as an agitator was probably pretty radical. And in 1963, registering black people in Mississippi to vote was considered pretty radical.
Or, at least it was to the owners of the Galaxy Supper Club in Queens, New York. Gregory had the star-power to pack the house with mix-raced audiences, but the club fired him on the second night of his week-long gig, right after the emcee announced that Gregory would donate his $6500 salary to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, a group running a voter registration campaign in the south.
“I guess it just bugged them that all of that money was going down there to help my people in Mississippi,” he told the Baltimore Afro-American.
The club charged that he was fired for showing up late, but the NAACP didn’t buy it. The organization spoke out in defense of Gregory* and supported him in a breach of contract dispute claiming he was entitled to the full week’s salary despite his dismissal. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Joey Adams, president of the American Guild of Variety Artists, also spoke up on behalf of Gregory. The controversy made headlines across the country.
Gregory lost the case, but gained attention for civil rights causes. The experience also planted the seeds for a lifelong relationship between him and the NAACP, which was not without its own strains.
Tensions with the NAACP
Through the 60s, journalist Drew Pearson penned a popular syndicated column, “Merry-Go-Round,” which was equal parts political commentary and political gossip. Something of a muckraker himself, Pearson also used his column to advocate for civil rights. He frequently featured interviews with Gregory, with whom he collaborated on fundraising events for the cause.
In a column from May 1964, Gregory warned about the threat of violence as the result of class issues and frustrations within the civil rights movement, and the increasing appeal of the more aggressive tactics by the likes of Malcolm X. The slow progress of the movement left poorer blacks, who bore the brunt of racial tensions and discrimination, feeling angry and ignored.
“How do we control this violence? By sit-ins and kneel-ins,” Gregory explained. “If we can give the Negro demonstrations, and if these demonstrations go some place, then the little Negro is satisfied.”
“To prevent this violence,” he added, “you’ve got to give little Negro an outlet for his pent-up steam.”
The NAACP, Gregory implied, was too elitist to work with the poorer, less educated population. It didn’t have much to offer the “little man who can’t afford membership…and if he did come to an NAACP meeting, he’d embarrass them.”
Pearson spoke with Gregory again in August 1965, shortly after the comedian had been shot in the leg while attempting to make peace during the Watts riots in L.A. The violence, which was erupting across the nation, Pearson pointed out, was exactly what Gregory had warned about. In this interview, Gregory reiterated: “You’ve got to remember that the little Negro has never felt represented by the NAACP.”
Such statements raised red flags at the NAACP. A news release from the organization dated August 21, 1965* charged that Pearson’s column “maligns the NAACP name” and included text from a wire sent to Gregory: “It is inconceivable to us that you could have made such flatly untrue statements about the NAACP.”
This wasn’t the first time the NAACP had concerns about Gregory. An even earlier internal NAACP memo from April 1964* expressed offense at being the butt of some of Gregory’s jokes about their relatively low membership rates – jokes he told at NAACP events. The memo also noted:
...certain signs of change or confusion in Dick Gregory which may have ominous meaning for us. He seemed not unfriendly to the Black Nationalists of Harlem and there are overtones of their attitudes in many of his recent statements, particularly as they relate to the NAACP...
Gregory was obviously, either unintentionally or subconsciously parroting the Black Nationalist line, twitting us and never at any time did he really say anything complimentary about the NAACP.
Later, it would turn that the NAACP wasn’t the only organization to keep records on Gregory’s suspected ties to the Black Nationalist movement.
The FBI’s plot to “neutralize” Gregory
A 1978 Washington Post article reported that Gregory was included as a target of the FBI’s “COINTELPRO” operations that focused on civil rights leaders from 1956 through 1971:
FBI files reveal that the late J. Edgar Hoover ordered the bureau's Chicago office to develop measures to "neutralize" black comedian Dick Gregory – and suggested that the measures could include alerting La Cosa Nostra [the American mafia] to verbal attacks Gregory made on the crime syndicate.
"Do you realize what you have here?” Gregory asked when he reviewed the documents. “This piece of paper has the director of the most powerful police agency in the history of this planet proposing to contact this Mafia so they could work together.”
An FBI memo dated July 2, 1968,* stated “Chicago is continuing to give the matter of discrediting Gregory top priority,” as he was “prone to erratic statements and actions.”
Among these actions, Gregory had threatened to disrupt the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago with a march to advocate for a stronger fair housing ordinance and to draw attention to civil rights issues in the city.
The Post also reported the FBI documents charged that Gregory used his career in comedy to spread the extremist message of Black Nationalism, to promote violence and to make personal attacks on the President. Gregory called this “the most absurd statement possible.”
“I was making lectures on college campuses – colleges don't pay you to preach violence and hate," he told the Post. "I've always advocated non-violence, in everything I ever said or wrote.”
The Post concluded that whether such an effort to neutralize Gregory was ever executed remained unknown – 200 pages of the FBI documents were not released due to “national security reasons.”
Coincidentally, 1978 was the same year Gregory gave up the comedy circuit to focus full-time on lecturing and activism. Or as he would have put it, “agitation.” In addition to focusing on race relations and civil rights, Gregory spent the next several decades on such “extremism” as advocating for vegetarianism, criticizing the two-party political system and promoting spirituality.
For further research
Learn more, watch the webinar “How Does the Past Inform Today? Key Primary Source Collections for Research in Social Movements,” and request complimentary trials for your library.
* Digital versions of these and related documents are available in ProQuest History Vault:
- Civil Rights and the Black Freedom Struggle Collection modules:
- - NAACP Papers: Special Subjects
- American Politics and Society Collection module:
- - FBI Confidential Files and Radical Politics in the U.S., 1945-1972
Special to, T. A. (1963, Apr 27). FIRING OF DICK GREGORY PROTESTED. Afro-American (1893-1988).
Myasia, M. (2001, Jan 05). An interview with dick gregory. Afro - American Red Star.
Pearson, D. (1965, Aug 18). Dick gregory expects more woe. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File).
Pearson, D. (1964, May 17). Dick gregory fears violence in the summer's racial crisis. The Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution (1950-1968).
By Rob Warden Special to The Washington Post. (1978, Mar 10). Files show hoover sought to 'neutralize' black. The Washington Post (1974-Current File).