Dick Gregory: I'm Not In Jail, America Is In Jail

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"Last time I was down South, I walked into this restaurant. This White waitress came up to me 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.' About that time, these three cousins came in. You know the ones I mean, Ku, Klux and Klan. They said, 'Boy, we're givin' you fair warnin. Anything you do to that chicken, we're gonna do to you.'

"So I put down my knife and fork, picked up that chicken, and kissed it."

From "Callus on my Soul" by Dick Gregory.

Long before there was Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock, there was Dick Gregory, "the Black Mort Sahl."

Although, in the Congo, Gregory said, Sahl was "the White Dick Gregory."

By 1963, he was the most famous comedian in the country, working the top clubs, earning as much as $25,000 a night. But the civil rights movement was changing the country and Gregory wanted to be part of it. He began spending more and more time at marches and sit-ins, less and less time on the stage. When critics said his demonstrating was interfering with his career, he responded: "My career is interfering with my demonstrating."

He and his wife, Lillian, dedicated their lives to the movement. Over the years, he became increasingly political, running for mayor of Chicago in 1967 and president of the United States in 1968. (He vowed if elected, he would paint the White House Black.)

He protested against the war in Vietnam and campaigned against hunger and poverty. In 1973, his interest in fitness and nutrition caused him to quit performing in nightclubs that encouraged people to drink and smoke, endangering their health.

In the last several decades, his fasts, cross-country runs and charges of government conspiracies have kept him in the news more than his performing has.

Now, 30 years after he wrote his first autobiography, "Nigger," Gregory, 68, is back with "Callus on My Soul" (Longstreet Press, $25) written with Shelia P. Moses. It has been sold to Showtime, which reportedly plans to make a movie based on the book.

Q What does the title of the book mean?

A If you have a tight shoe, it rubs your foot and you get a blister, then a corn, then a callus that will eventually wear out your shoe from the inside. Black people have a callus on their soul which will eventually break through the shoe -- the White racist, sexist system -- that is holding them down.

Q Tell me about the picture on the front of the book.

A It shows me in a shirt and tie, behind bars. It looks like I'm in jail, but in jail you can't wear a tie. What the picture is saying is, "I'm not in jail, America is in jail. I'm on the free side."

Q You told Jet magazine you wrote the book because you could "no longer sit by and let Black folk view what has happened . . . through the eyes of the system that's done it." What do you mean?

A Until the civil rights movement, I never questioned the system -- the White press. Then I would see something happen with my own eyes and the next day, I would read a report that was completely inaccurate. Take Martin Luther King's "I've got a dream" speech. That's not what he was talking about. He said, "We're here celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and we still haven't achieved emancipation. America wrote us a check and the check keeps bouncing." That's what the speech was really about.

Q In 1963, at the height of your popularity as a comedian, how big were you?

A I was huge. I did the "Tonight" show with Jack Paar and he invited me to sit on the couch with him, the first Black person ever. It was the first time White Americans had ever heard a Black man discuss his kids and they saw there was no difference between me and them. Never before had White Americans seen a Black man stand flat-footed and talk about what was in the news. Black folks would sing. Sammy Davis Jr. would dance and stop and tell a joke, then dance again.

Q You have 10 children. Why did you name your youngest daughter Miss?

A I wanted to be sure that one Gregory would be referred to as Miss Gregory. Back then, Black folks were never referred to as Mr. or Miss. Look at a telephone book from Memphis right up till about 1965. The Blacks don't have a Mr. or Miss in front of their names. The White folks do. If you and I were working side by side, I'd have a sign on my desk that said, "Dick Gregory." Yours would say, "Miss Lavin."

Q What role does Africa play in the life of African-Americans?

A A big role now. It didn't before because of the poisoned images Hollywood created of savages with bones in their noses and plates in their ears. But the United Nations changed that and we got to see Africans as heads of state and diplomats. There is a huge movement of Black folks going to Africa. It gives us new dignity and self-respect to be able to trace our roots. If we just study our history from the time of slavery on, it's as if I tripped and people only referred to me from that moment. Our history didn't start at these shores. It's not just of slaves, it's of kings and queens and great people.

Q During the early days of the civil rights movement, Jews stood shoulder to shoulder with Blacks. Why has there been a breach between them?

A There is no breach. Black folks have never desecrated a Jewish cemetery or drawn swastikas on synagogues. Most Blacks have empathy and sympathy for Jews and it has nothing to do with Hitler. . . . We feel empathy because we know if White folks don't like Jews -- as White as they are -- how do they feel about us?

Q Your family paid a price for your dedication to civil rights. They were evicted from their home 10 years ago.

A That's true, but that's not the biggest price they paid. They didn't get to know me and I didn't get to know them. I was always out somewhere. I still am. I'm on the road 10 months out of the year.

Q Are you optimistic about race relations in this country?

A I'm so optimistic. I saw Eddie Murphy perform. The audience was 99 percent White. At the beginning of the show, he said, "I'm going to say a lot of things you White folks don't like and if you want you can leave right now. . . ." The audience got up and cheered. I called my wife and said to get over to catch the second show. Things are changing so fast.

Q Are you in favor of reparations for African-Americans? What form would you like them to take?

A I am in favor of them and I'm absolutely sure there will be reparations and not just for Black folks, but for Indians too. First, I'd like to see a museum about slavery, and then an educational program. I'd like to see money put into escrow for education and training for entrepreneurs.

Q As you look back, have you used your life in the best way?

A The only way I can answer is I'm sorry I didn't get involved in the movement earlier. It was why I was put on this earth. I came up in the Baptist Church which said "love this," "love that." But I didn't know what love was till I got into the movement. One day, the only reason America will be mentioned will be to locate the place where the civil rights movement took place.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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