(Credit: AP/Matt Sayles)
Salon talks to activist and comedian Dick Gregory, who will be the subject of a new documentary
Dick Gregory’s had a long, rich and strange life as an entertainer and activist. I hadn’t heard of him before I started talking with Andre Gaines, a film producer and lifelong Dick Gregory fan who wanted to do a Black Lives Matter-themed documentary focusing on Gregory’s idiosyncratic philosophy and beliefs about the “secret history” of the United States.
It’s a strange world we live in today when the modern incarnation of the civil rights marches is being organized and reported on through Twitter and Mr. Gregory’s reentry into the world of political activism is through a Kickstarter–and it’s a testament to Gregory’s staying power as a media name that the Kickstarter drew enough attention that it’s already closed thanks to an outside investor coming in to back the project.
It’s especially strange for me to be connecting with Dick Gregory’s legacy as a possible writer for the documentary, a 31-year-old Chinese guy from Ohio born decades after his heyday. The more I learned about him the more fascinated I was–a groundbreaking stand-up comedian who paved the way for names like Richard Pryor and Paul Mooney, an activist who marched in Selma with Dr. King, who marched for the ERA with Gloria Steinem and who went on hunger strike for the hostages in Iran. And an eccentric conspiracy theorist who denounced the official reports both on JFK’s assassination and on 9/11, who got Hunter S. Thompson’s write-in vote for president in 1968, and who now makes a living partly by promoting a raw fruit and vegetable diet.
For him to reenter the political arena at the age of 82, through an electronic medium invented when he was past retirement age, is a big deal. For someone like me to be asked to work with him to bring his message to a new audience is a huge responsibility, and I sat down with him for an hour to try to get to know him and his beliefs. Though there’s much he said that I don’t completely agree with or even fully understand, I was captivated the whole time by his raw, unfiltered candor and I definitely look forward to hearing more about what he has to say in the documentary.
Well, first of all I have to ask–as someone who was born in the Jim Crow era and who marched in the civil rights movement, what do you think of the progress we’ve made since then?
Well, we’ve come a long ways but the important thing we haven’t even started changing is the mental thing. See, going from slavery to the early ’60s we had to worry about being physically beat up, physically lynched. I mean, if someone got lynched tonight we’d be shocked, whereas up until the ’60s, we wouldn’t have been. But now it’s a mental thing. Until you solve the mental thing… that’s the interesting thing about the history of black people in America, we’re the only people on this planet who went through what we went through and opted for education instead of liberation.
We’ve never been liberated. I mean, George Washington wasn’t beating up the British so he could open up another college. The sign don’t say, “Give me education or give me death,” it says, “Give me liberty or give me death.” And so to have a bunch of people that are educated not liberated, man… of course, they don’t know it.
When a black person teaches their child: “Be careful if this white racist cop pulls you over, don’t talk too fast, don’t move too fast, cause he might kill you.” Any time you tell a child to respect and fear, to behave, for a murderer — children don’t hear what you mean, they hear what you say. So they think there’s something wrong with them. Why else would my mother and father tell me to be afraid of a cop, unless I’m doing something wrong?
So… you’d say the fear of violence does more harm to black Americans than violence itself? Would you agree with people who say the solution needs to come from within the black community rather than outside, then?
We’re like people who’ve been taking aspirin for 20 years because they thought they had a migraine but then one day they found out they had a brain tumor. I can’t bring you aspirin no more, but I don’t know how to get it out.
Just cause I’m black, I don’t know how to get it out. You want somebody doing heart surgery, then you’re going to get a heart surgeon to write it up. Not just somebody who had a heart attack. What do they know about it?
What happens with fear? When you go into fight or flight? What kind of poison and chemicals go into your body? How do you deal with it? How much sex and drinking and drugs do you do?
A lot of black folks dealt with it by looking to God. God and fear can’t occupy the same spot, you see. We saw them, back in the day — black women, little children, black men. King and them. It worked for a time.
But then they came out with the guns.
A lot of those cops were Klansmen. When King gets the call, “N***er, we’re gonna blow up your house at 2:00 in the morning,” he can’t call the police. They’re probably the ones that made the call. So he’s gotta grab two children, and Coretta grabs two, and on their faces the children see something they’ve never seen before. Fear.
Fear works different on different people. You see a mother go down to the garage, jack up the car to change the tire, then the phone rings, then she comes back and the baby pushed the jack under the car and fell under it–and she lifts up the car! Soldiers on the front lines, taking that hill. That’s fear, that’s fear that comes and goes, it does its job and disappears.
But when you study what fear does to people who’ve been in it so long… You can go down the South, to Mississippi, to see black folks who’ve got three PhDs who still look like sharecroppers. The jaw fell, the eyes sunk…
Someday we’ll find out how all this works, all the chemicals, what makes us die so much younger, but it comes down to fear, fear, fear, fear. You see a cat that sees a dog, how its body changes, its hair swells up, its muscles clench. That’s how we live every day. We got used to it, we live with it, but that’s what’s happening.
Most white folks don’t know it but you can smell racism. You can smell fear and you can smell hate, just like I can smell whether my mom’s cooking barbecue or baking a cake. Black folks know it when they’re around it, it’s animal, it’s chemical.
Wow. So, you’d say that the power of the civil rights movement was faith staving off fear? And the end of the civil rights movement was a case of fear ultimately overpowering faith?
Look at the Haitians. Napoleon had the greatest army in the history of the planet at that time and they went over there and the black folk whooped their ass. Napoleon came in and they said no, you get back. And what did they blame it on? Voodoo. Now they teach everyone that voodoo is something mysterious and something negative. But “voudou” was just a word meaning spirit. It was spirituality.
We had something with King, with the movement around him. He had no guns, man. They had no evilness. They didn’t say nothing on those cameras or when then the cameras left. “Those no-good honkies, man” — there was none of that. It was a different thing.
And I learned so much from that. I never thought I’d see the day I’d sit here and tell you I’d rather be killed by somebody than kill somebody. That’s what I got out of that movement. We took on the greatest nation in the history of the world and brought them to their knees. With no meanness, no bitterness.
And everybody’s talking about where it went wrong, the thing they miss — When they killed Jesus, they didn’t get none of his disciples. When they killed Caesar, they didn’t mess with his friends in the Senate. When they came after us, they wiped everyone who had the power to change things. Malcolm. Martin. Medgar Evers. You go down the row, the list of names, and see what happened.
And you think that after those leaders were killed, the community gave in to fear?
When you stop and think… It’s like, what do you say when white folks bring up the Confederate flag? We think Hitler was one of the most powerful tyrants — them Nazis one of the most powerful governments that ever existed — but you can’t go to Germany and see a swastika. Not in public. So what does that say about us here?
We’re more vicious. These white American racists were more vicious than Hitler and them Nazis they hung on years after the war was over. You know how long World War II’s been over? And yet to this day they’ve got Nazi sympathizers but it’s not permitted in public. But we Americans don’t demand that of our racists. Black Americans don’t demand it.
You know we have thousands of black cops in America. And you never turn on the TV or hear the radio or pick up the paper where a white family is crying because these black cops shot their loved one in the back of the head 40 times. You think black folks don’t do that because they’re more spiritual? You think they don’t do that because they’re better? No! They know white folks won’t tolerate it! And as long as we do tolerate it it’s gonna happen.
By don’t tolerate it, I don’t mean get no gun. I mean organization, boycotts. When white folks say they’re gonna boycott Christmas shopping until they get this change–they get it.
The gays proved that. In March, when the governor of Indiana who was gonna sign a law saying businesses did not have to serve same-sex couples? And then the gays, and the people who were friends to the gays, rose up so bad, and then all at once people started canceling out conventions–and he changed that so fast like he always meant to do it.
And so let me give you an example. There’s still five states that display the Confederate flag in their state flag in some fashion. (Ed note: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas. Nine states, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, continue to display the Confederate flag on license plates.)
Now you saw what happened in Charleston, right? Now let me tell you how this white racist system feels about us. After 50 years, after nine people were massacred, they finally took that flag down in South Carolina. Let me tell you something. If black folks were to come together and said we’re holding a press conference today, and said to this state here or that state there, if that Confederate flag is not gone from official display, all the Negro athletes in your state are gonna start a boycott — no more black men coming to play sports in your state?
It’d be gone that night. That’s what they value–black athletes, compared to human beings.
It sounds like you’d clearly disagree with people who think America has somehow entered a “post-racial” era. Do you think America is still, fundamentally, a racist country?
See, a black person cannot be racist. Even some black people don’t know that. I can dislike a white person because they’re Jewish, I can dislike them because they’re Italian, or if they’re Russian. That’s prejudice.
But racism is the ability to control somebody else’s fate and destiny. And I can hate white folks all I want. I won’t have the power to take their job or see to it their kids go to a bad school.
The problem is really white supremacy. Most white folks don’t know what that means. They believe it means prejudice based on race. No, no, no. That’s the excuse. It’s supremacy. Who is supreme? Compared to you?
When Hitler decided he was trying to create a perfect race he wasn’t talking about black folks versus white folks. He was talking about Germans versus everyone else. Anyone who was a misfit got killed, white-looking or not. Consequently ‘whiteness’ is not a skin color, it’s an attitude.
There’s people in this world making millions of dollars every year just as interest on their money. That’s what I mean by “white folks.” I perform 200 days out of the year, and every time I say if I took over America, the first thing I’d make the black folks do is apologize to the white folks–because you’re mad at the wrong white folks! The white folks you’re mad at couldn’t hit at you if they’d like to. You guys get mad at the white folks at the Sears & Roebucks, the Walgreens, but I want you to be mad at the Saks Fifth Avenue ones. But they’ve got power, and you’re scared of that.
Who are you mad at? The Ku Klux Klan? Lynch mobs? How many black folks died from lynching as opposed to the effects of public policy? You think Negro-hating rednecks who can’t read or write, you think they determine public policy? You think the fucking Tea Party determines public policy? Let me tell you, if they do shut down the government that’s because the damn Rockefellers in power want it to be shut down. If that one percent didn’t want you to do something they could have tanks in your neighborhood and wipe you out before they’d let you get away with it, you understand?
The people who run this country, who run the world–I’m an old Negro. Coming up I wanted to be white because I thought white folks knew what was going on. Now I find out you white folks are as dumb as we are. Schools only a little bit better than ours. The same game they run on us they run on you.
Well, the buzzword the kids use these days for that is “intersectionality,” that all of us have the same problems in the end even if they manifest in different ways. You, for instance, were just as committed to fighting for women’s lib as for black civil rights–did you see those as connected?
Look at it this way. When I was a boy a woman who had a billion dollars couldn’t buy a house or a car unless a man signed for it. A white woman didn’t get to vote until 1921. Black men legally had the right to vote with the 13th/14th/15th Amendment. I live in a country of white men so vicious and evil, a white woman–that’s his momma, his daughter, his wife–she didn’t have the right to vote. Those white men, they gaveme the legal right to vote before her.
And every time she went to trial, before she could vote, if she was framed for killing somebody she couldn’t get before a jury of her peers because you have to vote to serve on the jury. Men decided what she owned, men voted for her, men sent her to prison.
It’s supremacy. That’s what this is all about.
Looking just how much power the people in power have, are you optimistic that anything’s going to change in your lifetime? Or mine?
Well, the only reason I’m optimistic (laughs) you’ve heard of this thing called the Indigo children? Kids born with IQs of 2000, traveling to other planets while their parents sleep–that could change things, if it’s happening.
But just on the face of it? No. We’re where the Romans was just before they fell. Their people didn’t know it. Our people don’t know it. But you can’t keep doing all this bullshit without it coming to an end.
And America? Let me tell you what I say about America. If that universal God up there don’t destroy America, then that God owes Sodom and Gomorrah a serious apology, hm? OK? Supposed to be the most Christian society in the history of the planet, they sing that hymn, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” I tell them, “You weren’t there then and you wouldn’t be there now.”
And if Jesus came here today and started bugging the wrong people again, they’d give him the electric chair. And then we’d have Christians with electric chairs around their necks singing, “Were you there when they electrified my Lord?”
This ignorance–no, no, no.
But… you don’t know, man. You don’t know what can change overnight.
What would have to happen for you to believe that things could change?
If we had a John Brown. My heroes–if I had to rank ‘em, it’d be John Brown at No. 1, everyone else falling behind. A white man that’s willing to kill or be killed–to liberate me! Had his two sons with him at Harpers Ferry.
Look. You can’t get no blacker than me. I’ll fight for black folks, but I–I won’t take my children with me. He did. He had 26 people with him, five of them black. That movie, “Django Unchained“? John Brown was like that, but it really happened.
And had it not been for John Brown, the world wouldn’t have been the same. Because of John Brown, the Civil War started. Well, that was the soldiers singing that. That was the North singing, as they were marching off to fight, “John Brown’s Body is a-Mouldering in his Grave…”
On my birthday, Oct. 12, I don’t go nowhere but down to Harpers Ferry, and thank John Brown’s spirit. Oct. 16, that’s the day Harpers Ferry hit. And Dec. 2, it used to be in Virginia, now it’s West Virginia, I go where they hanged him, the tree is still there. And I remember the speech he said as he was walking to the gallows. He left the courtroom, walked to the street, turned left, walked 2 ½ blocks, turn left, walked 3 ½ blocks and there’s the tree. And I remember what they said.
“N***er-lover! What you got to say!”
He said, “I’m fixing to die and if I did it for rich white men I’d be the hero.”
So he walked from the scaffold, and they tied up the rope, and he said, “Oh, by the way. I talked to God last night, and God told me to tell you, that you’ve lost the last chance to free the Negro slaves with no blood. And he told me to tell you, when the Negroes gonna be free, it’s gonna be the biggest bloodbath in the history of the planet.”
It took me a long time before I realized, it wasn’t just the Civil War he meant. John Brown, may he be at peace. But not us.