An Elegy: Dick Gregory, A Life Worth Living

Back in 1966, when I was still a priest, a few of my Franciscan brothers and I would drive from Washington D.C. to Milwaukee to support Father James Groppi’s racial integration efforts. During some of those visits, Fannie Lou Hamer would sing the Mass in Father Groppi’s St. Boniface Church. The altar would be crowded with people singing all through the Mass. Coming from a more conventional church back in Washington, this was both new and exciting to me. After Mass, the “commandos” of the NAACP would lead all of us on a march for open housing. Dick Gregory led those marches. Dick used to drive up to Milwaukee from Chicago to help the brave and decent Father Groppi.

I got to know Dick because I went to his closing of a run from Detroit to Washington D.C. that was to raise awareness in an effort to stop world hunger. At that time, I was the director of Freedom from Hunger. The first time we met, Dick and I talked well into the night about various things. He invited me to his home in Plymouth, Massachusetts and I visited him soon after that. It was at his home that I met his brilliant wife, Lillian, and discovered that they had a family like mine, at least eleven children strong. Dick and I decided to work together. When I went to visit him in Plymouth, I would stay with the Gregory family and when Dick came to Washington, he would stay on 11th Street with me.

Enough of that. People want to know stories, so here I go. Not chronological or even logical, just stories.

Right before Dick did the walk across the U.S.A. in an effort to stop world hunger, he sent me to Richard Pryor’s house for “75.” Excited to meet Pryor, who I considered to be a comic genius, I went over very nervously to his home. When I asked for “75” to help fund Dick’s walk, Richard gave me $75. After I returned to Dick, he said, “Jack I meant $75,000!” I was not hip enough at the time to know that small meant big and so I had to go back to Pryor. Pryor met me at the door, laughing like a madman. This time, I got the “75” that Dick was looking for and was pleased that I was entertaining two iconic comedians.

Much later, Dick and I were to be interviewed for a possible play about an afternoon that we both spent with Charles Mingus. Dick put on a one-man personal stand up for Mingus to cheer him up during Mingus’ illness and we talked about developing this into a play. The interview was held at a hotel in Washington D.C.. When we got there, we saw a beautiful mural of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. Next to Dr. King, in the same mural, was a portrait of Winston Churchill. Dick immediately walked over to the concierge and challenged him over the appropriateness of depicting Dr. King next to Churchill. It warmed my Irish heart. Dick called for the hotel management to respond. We ended up in a huge crowd of waiters, desk workers and management, all being entertained by Dick.

Another time, Danny Sheehan, Dick’s lawyer in D.C., was holding forth on the arrest of Dick Gregory for demonstrating in front of the White House advocating for reopening of the investigations of the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy, John Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr..

As a part of his activism, Dick would hold press conferences with Coretta Scott King, as well as many other leaders from the civil rights movement. Some of these press conferences took place on Pennsylvania Avenue, right in front of the White House. One of the protests was about the rights and wrongs of probable cause and arrest. Dick was arrested. Sheehan was brilliant in his advocacy at the subsequent trial. One of the top hitters from the Justice Department was representing the government. The Justice Department lawyer pointed at Dick and said: “You people…” and that was it. Dick stood up in response and held forth like Justice Marshall in full fury. We eventually won that case.

After my time at Freedom from Hunger, I was appointed to be the Peace Corps director in Lesotho. Dick, together with John Lewis, helped me to get that appointment. Normally, after two and half years, the Peace Corps generally moves a director to another post, but I wanted to stay for a second tour in Lesotho. I just loved the country and was happy to do whatever anti-Apartheid stuff that I could do there. I told Dick about wanting to stay. He visited Dick Celeste, Sam Brown and John Lewis, the powers at that time, drumming up support for my cause. I got to stay.

Another time, Dick Gregory sent me to recruit the great Muhammed Ali on the day that Ali was to fight Jimmy Young. Impossible. Or so I thought. We needed the champ. I got in front of him and told him the tale of our cause and that Dick was waiting for an answer. Ali agreed to help immediately. After he won that night, Ali announced his participation and asked all of America to join him on international and national TV.

Dick was, in his way, a pacifist. I remember him telling me that members of the musical group WAR told him that, “we are war.” Dick walked away and said to me, “I am for peace.”

During a vacation that I took from Lesotho between my two tours there, Dick insisted that I go to Iran with him to free the hostages. I kept telling him that I could not go. Why? He told me: “Jack, this is important.” I said: “Dick, I got to be alive to do my job in Lesotho.” “Oh,” he said, “OK.”

Dick would say that he loved the abolitionist John Brown because he gave two sons for the cause of racial integration. God only gave one.

The last I met with Dick, I literally took his hands in mine and kissed them. He smiled at me and that will be my lasting memory. I loved him.

He was a hero when the nation sorely needed brave souls. When the poor and the hungry needed him, he went. When American Indians needed him, he went. When Dr. King needed him, he went. When Lil, his wife, needed him, he went. When a stage was needed for all comedians, black or white, Dick went to the Playboy club and negotiated a platform for exactly that.

Charles Mingus once told me that Dick healed him regularly with his humor, his charisma and his presence. Dick did the same for our nation.

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