Dick Gregory: Mr Incredible

King of comedy, civil-rights leader with Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali's jogging pal, presidential candidate: at every turn of black American history, Dick Gregory appears in the picture. And, he insists, there's plenty of fight left in him yet
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Dick Gregory had been on stage only a few minutes when the refrigerator salesman from Alabama stood up and called him a nigger. The comedian responded by telling the heckler that he received a $50 bonus every time this happened, and urged the whole audience to get on their feet and call him "nigger". Gregory added that he was about to open a restaurant of that name around the block: "So remember - every time you use that word again, you'll be advertising my place."

His appearance at the Playboy Club in Chicago that night in December 1961, changed the face of American comedy. "From that moment," Newsweek wrote, "the Jim Crow school of humour was dead."

Gregory, the first black American satirist, paved the way for, and heavily influenced, comedians such as Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy and, most importantly, Richard Pryor. Now 71, sitting with me in a hotel restaurant at Marina del Rey, Los Angeles, he goes unrecognised by most customers, but we are interrupted every few minutes by black patrons of all ages wanting to shake the hand of this tall, slender figure who looks more like a priest than a comedian.

An engaging, softly-spoken man, Gregory insists that "there have been only three comic geniuses: Mark Twain, Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor." But if you consider the members of that other, still exclusive, constituency to which Dick Gregory belongs - the truly great comedians - there can be none who has been more harshly treated by posterity. Every quality that stand-up performers seek to acquire - wit, spontaneity and fearlessness - he had, and has, to an extraordinary level.

A close friend of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, and a confidant of Robert Kennedy, Gregory was politically engaged to a degree no comedian had ever been before, or probably will be again. Of the handful of articles in his British cuttings file, one - from the Sun, referring to one of his anti-war protests - declares that "the electric chair is too good for him". His sustained determination to risk his life, combating racism, intolerance and warmongering over five decades, makes Michael Moore look like Bobby Davro.

"Dick Gregory was the greatest, and he was the first," Richard Pryor tells me, by e-mail. "Somebody had to break down that door."

He got his chance at the Playboy only because the regular comic didn't want to work Sundays.

"I remember the evening well," Gregory says, "because it was blowing a blizzard. I got on the bus with my stage suit in a bag, but I got off at the wrong stop. I knew I had to be there at eight, and I had to run through the snow. Every one of those clichés was going round in my head - niggers is always late; niggers is lazy; niggers can't be trusted..."

When he walked through the stage door, the manager, who'd just learnt that the room had been rented out to an all-male, all-Southern, all-white, frozen-food convention, was blocking his way.

"He said I'd be paid," Gregory adds, "but that he didn't want me to perform, for my own safety." Angry, cold, and fired up for his big chance, he says, "All I could see was the stage. I pushed him out of the way and walked straight on. It's the only time I've ever gone on and not changed clothes."

Invited by one member of the audience to travel down and see how warm a reception a Negro comic would get in Mobile, Alabama, Gregory responded: "Mobile? I won't even work the south of this room."

"Why you heckling me?" he asked another. "You want a debate? You go to 111th Street [Harlem] and ask them for the white washroom."

His act didn't refer exclusively to race ("Khrushchev doesn't really hate us," Gregory said. "His interpreter does.") When it did, his anecdotal style, honed in the black clubs on the south side of Chicago, had nothing in common with the Uncle Tom routines familiar to mainstream audiences.

"I called Sammy Davis Jr," Gregory told them, "and I said, 'Sammy - you're so friendly with Frank Sinatra and all those guys. Can't you get me into television? I just can't seem to get a break. I figured you'd know how it is, cause I heard you used to be black too.'

"I went on at the Playboy at eight," Gregory tells me. "Eleven o'clock, I'm still talking. Things like - 'A Southern liberal? That's a guy that'll lynch you from a low tree.' The science reporter from Time magazine was there, and he wrote an article about me. Hugh Hefner gave me a contract, and life hasn't been the same since."

Actually, "comedian" is an absurdly narrow word to describe Gregory now, and probably always was. In fiction, his CV would be impossible to render plausible. Versatility is the keynote. To younger Americans, he's best known as the inventor of The Dick Gregory Diet: a terrifying regime consisting of vegetable juice, powdered kelp, raw broccoli and thrice-weekly enemas, relieved only by 72-hour periods on nothing but distilled water.

It does appear to have worked for him, though - he looks tremendous - and Gregory (who was a nationally famous college athlete) has acted as nutritional adviser to boxers including Muhammad Ali and Riddick Bowe. In the course of our conversation he points out that he is also the only black man in history to have stood in the final round of a Presidential election ("the choice in 1968 was between Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, George Wallace and me") and mentions, in passing, that he sang backing vocals on John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance".

On the table in front of him, Gregory has placed a cardboard file, next to which are a few loose items. They include a page on FBI paper, a flattened toothpaste carton and a photograph of what is just recognisable as a human body that has been torn to pieces. He'll come to these later, he says.

Dick Gregory was born in St Louis, the second of six children. His father was generally absent or, when home, drunk and abusive.

"I used to shine shoes in a whites-only bar in St Louis," Gregory recalls. "One day I was cleaning this lady's shoes. When you're putting the sole dressing on, you have to put your hand behind the heel, to steady it. I heard this man say: 'Take your hand off that white woman's leg, boy.' Then he kicked me in the mouth and broke my front teeth. The owner threw me out and told me not to come back."

"How old were you then?"

"I would say nine."

He won an athletic scholarship to Southern Illinois University. As a mile-runner, Gregory says, he learnt to play the long game. "The 100 metres makes you evil," he argues, "because one mistake and you're through." The mile, he says, "is like life. You make one mistake, two, even three. But if you have it in you, you can make it up, if you can manage one extraordinary last lap. All milers have to run with a pain, right under their heart."

When he left college, Gregory moved to Chicago where he started working comedy clubs. There were other black comics around - men such as Slappy White and the risqué Red Foxx - but none had crossed over to a mixed audience in the way that Gregory did, without compromising themselves or their public.

"I waited at the counter of a white diner for 11 years," Gregory said, in one routine. "When they finally integrated, they didn't have what I wanted. A top man from the Klu Klux Klan called me up. He told me: 'I want to be the first to congratulate you. I have to admit you've made it. I take my sheet off to you.'"

Like many true originals, Dick Gregory seems to have appeared from nowhere. "I learnt how to talk quick on the street," he says. "The closest models I had were preachers." *

You could argue that the a cappella sermons of the Reverend CL Franklin [father of Aretha] are some of the greatest performance poems ever recorded. "Well that's what I grew up with, like any other black performer. Ninety-nine per cent of us came out of the church."

His genial manner belies a certain steel. Before he gave up smoking, drinking and eating meat in the late 1960s, Gregory was known as somebody not to mess with. "Going with him to the ghetto bars where he sometimes performed," says Robert Lipsyte, the white New York Times reporter who co-authored his first autobiography, Nigger, "I remember hoping he was still packing."

After one show in Chicago, says Gregory, who no longer owns a gun, four white police officers told him his act was degrading.

"One of them put his hand on me and said: 'Hey, boy.' He was armed. I said, 'Motherfucker, if you ever put your hand on me again, you be ready to kill me or be ready to die. You want to say something to me, you know what my name is.'"

On stage, Gregory says, "I kept pushing things further. I made everything more topical, more racial." When the possibility of a black astronaut was proposed, he told a New York audience: "We made it from the back of the bus to the Moon. Now the hard part - getting him [across the South] to Cape Canaveral."

The ecstatic reception he received from Esquire and the New York Times at the start of his career cooled as he became increasingly preoccupied with civil rights abuses in the Southern states. Dick Gregory became a central figure in the protests dedicated to ending segregation in schools and other public facilities, and enforcing black residents' right to vote: two ambitions violently repressed by the authorities in Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee.

Gregory first ventured south in the autumn of 1962 and from that moment his interest in comedy waned in favour of direct action. He and his wife Lil - mother of their 10 surviving children - have been jailed over 50 times in Washington DC alone.

In Birmingham, Alabama, he served 180 days for "parading without a permit". ("The judge said: 'I'm not giving you six months because you're a Negro. I just hate comics.'")

Shoulder to shoulder with Martin Luther King, he led marches in the struggle to register black voters for the 1964 elections, during which protesters were beaten, murdered and framed. He confronted the sheriffs on and off camera, tormenting them with the same wit and courage that distinguished his stage act.

"Dick Gregory," writes Tony Hendra in his definitive history of subversive comedy, Going Too Far, "was one of the very few humorists who got the opportunity to put his craft on the line for a life or death issue. When he got that chance, he rose to it magnificently. His very presence made the Southern police look ridiculous. He made them look like clowns. Not surprisingly, they jailed and beat him - but when they did, they looked even worse. Beating a comedian?"

Gregory suffered "the worst whipping of my life" in May 1963 after Martin Luther King's march against school segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, where young children who had joined the parade were beaten and locked up.

"After we'd been arrested," he says, "I saw this officer trying to pull a little boy out of our cell. I tried to stop him because I was afraid what he might do. So many people disappeared. They beat me with baseball bats."

The composure with which he recalls this incident contrasts with the mood of a speech he gave to a mainly white audience in Boston in 1968. "We were trying to integrate the schools of Mississippi," he told that meeting, "and we took those little five-year-olds by the hand and walked them to the clean white schoolhouse, just like the US Supreme Court had said that we could. And there they were, waiting for us: the sheriff and all them cracker KKKs. And they cut us down with bats and bricks and then stomped on us. Ten feet from me I saw this five-year-old girl with her head busted open by a brick. You ain't never seen nothing in your life until you see a five-year kid get hit by a grown man with a brick. I'm non-violent, but I'm damned if I'll preach non- violence to a man whose five-year-old daughter has got her head busted open by a brick."

"Beside me," a New York Times reporter wrote, "a girl has tears running down her face. The boy next to her is literally shaking in his seat."

"I don't think Dick Gregory is funny," said the segregationalist George Wallace, Democratic Governor of Alabama. "Not any more."

The truth is that Gregory hadn't been making Wallace laugh for quite some time. John Kennedy, who had previously had Gregory round for dinner at the White House, rang to advise him to back off. The majority of black stars avoided the marches for fear of alienating white fans. Their unease was well-founded.

By 1964, Robert Lipsyte told me, "He was blowing his career. Promoters were too frightened to hire him. As his income dwindled, an increasing amount of it went to the cause. Like Ali," Lipsyte added, "who always thought of himself as more than a boxer, Greg always considered himself more than a comic. Both men suffered enormously for their political convictions. But unlike Ali, Greg was conscious of his role from the beginning. He knew that his presence at Southern demonstrations would save lives, even if it killed his career. His agents went nuts over this."

Lipsyte first met Gregory "on 16 September 1963 in a New York hotel room. When I went in, Dick was alone, lying on the bed in his undershorts, crying." The performer was holding a newspaper cutting describing the murder of four young black girls in a church in Birmingham, Alabama, committed the previous day. Once, Lipsyte recalled, he lost his temper after the performer showed up late. "I can tell you been waitin', baby," Gregory told him. "You sound coloured."

East Coast liberals had no problem empathising with a comic beaten up in the name of Dr King. ("Imagine all this was burnt cork," Gregory used to tell them, "and you guys had wasted 20 years being tolerant for nothing.") They were less eager to applaud a man who bonded openly with Malcolm X.

"I'd just come back from Mississippi one evening, in the early 1960s," Gregory recalls. "The phone rings in my hotel room, in New York. This voice says: 'Dick Gregory? Brother Malcolm.' He says: 'Brother Greg, I understand you've been marching down South. I'd like to know when you can come over to the mosque and get with the people.'

"I said: 'I'll come now,' Gregory recalls. 'On condition that you put a photograph of us, together, on * the cover of Muhammad Speaks.' He said he'd call me back." Five minutes later, "the phone rang. Malcolm said: 'Dick Gregory - have you been drinking? You know your audience. You know we can't do that.' Then he laughed. That's how we became friends. That brother," he adds, "had a great sense of humour."

"It's a side of Malcolm X that never quite came across in my parents' Sunday Express."

"I can believe that, but he didn't care."

"Why did he like you?"

"Because I wasn't terrified of what might happen to my career, and because I supported The Movement."

And yet, Dick Gregory adds, "Malcolm would never go down South."

"Why not?"

"Because he was scared."

Gregory, while practising non-violence, applied himself to the cause using attributes which suggest he would have made an exceptional street fighter: rage, decisiveness and an absolute disregard for his own safety.

The morning after the disappearance of Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney (the activists murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964, whose case inspired Alan Parker's 1988 film Mississippi Burning) Gregory was in the office of Sheriff Rainey, in whose jailhouse they were last seen alive.

"I told Rainey: 'I know you killed those boys.'"

The sheriff responded by offering Gregory a Coca-Cola. "I said: 'Give it to your momma.'"

Such examples of Gregory's reckless insubordination recur in newspaper reports and leaked government files.

"You know what?" Gregory says. "Something occurred to me recently. Has there been any other movement where pretty well every one of its leaders has been killed? Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy..." He opens the file on the table and takes out a picture of himself with Martin Luther King, who appears in an emotional state. "If you look closely at that picture," he says, "you can see there are tears in his eyes. It was taken when I was Presidential candidate in 1968." [Other black candidates have stood in the primaries; Gregory made it to the final round by entering as an independent, write-in candidate.] "Dr King had just told me: 'You know - I believe they are going to kill me.' That was three weeks before he died."

"I was so embarrassed," he goes on. "I just said 'Yeah, Doc. But they're going to kill us all.'"

Gregory, who says he believes in God but is attached to no church, thinks some force was protecting him. It's true that his life seems to have been lived by reprieve: he should have been with the civil rights leader Medgar Evers, on the night he was assassinated in Jackson, Mississippi, in June 1963, but was called back to Chicago because his son, Richard Junior, had died of pneumonia aged 10 weeks.

"Right after I got back home," Gregory recalls, "I got a call. This guy says: 'Is this Dick Gregory?'

'Yes.'

'The nigger comedian whose kid just died?'

'Yes.'

"Then he said: 'Well I'm glad.'"

At the height of the disturbances in Watts, the LA ghetto, in December 1965, Gregory famously walked out into the vacant area between rioters and the police line. He managed only a few steps before he was shot in the leg, apparently by a civilian.

"I was hit, but I kept walking. I yelled out: 'Alright, goddammit, you shot me. Now go home.'"

In 1967, he ran for Mayor of Chicago against Mayor Daley, who had a convivial relationship with the city's Sicilian expatriates. Ben Lewis, the last black man to oppose Daley on an electoral platform, had been murdered on the eve of the vote.

What did Mrs Gregory make of all this?

"Lil and I made an agreement," he says. "We promised ourselves that black folks would always come first. Even before our children." The couple are still together. "I've been married for 45 years," he says, "but that has nothing to do with love. She just said: 'Nigger, if you ever leave, I'll kill you.'"

I'd always assumed that Gregory was the first man who publicly reclaimed the N-word for later generations of black musicians and performers, but he insists that distinction belongs to Mark Twain. "It was in an article he wrote for the Buffalo Express, after a posse in Memphis lynched the wrong man," he explains. "The title was: 'Oh Well, It Was Just Another Nigger'."

Gregory isn't enamoured of everyone who followed his lead in this regard, and especially loathes gangsta rap which, he argues, demeans black women.

"I blame it all on Richard Pryor," he says. "After him, some people got the idea that all you had to do was swear. But Richard wasn't funny because he said motherfucker. Richard was funny because he is a genius."

Gregory's improbable conversion from comic to dietician began in the South. "I became a vegetarian after I saw a Mississippi sheriff kick my wife when she was nine months' pregnant," he says. "I had to convince myself that the reason I did nothing was that I was non-violent."

"And that wasn't the reason?"

"I was scared. But afterwards I decided that if I wouldn't hit a man who kicked my pregnant wife, I couldn't participate in the destruction of any animal that never harmed me."

In the late 1960s he regularly fasted in excess of 40 days at a time, to publicise world famine. For two-and-a-half years, he ate no solid food as a protest against the Vietnam War. He was still following this regime when he completed several long-distance runs - one from LA to New York - frequently accompanied by Muhammad Ali, who described Gregory as "one of the greatest Americans of modern times".

"The first time I met Dick," Ali said, "I knew I was good for five miles. I decided I was going to take this chump and see what he could do. We went four miles and Dick wasn't even breathing hard. I stepped up the next mile real fast. Dick followed me, then he got faster. After that, I got into the car. Dick ran another 15 miles. I said to myself, 'This man is crazy.'"

It can't be easy, living on raw fruit and vegetable juice for 40 years.

"When I go to funerals," Gregory says, "the only folks I see getting buried is you eaters."

At John Lennon's request, Gregory devised a diet to help him withdraw from opiates and alcohol.

"When John called me," he says, "he told me to come to Holland, where he was 'living in a cave'. To me, a cave was a dark place where bats hang out. His cave looked like Buckingham Palace."

Gregory was in Tehran in 1979, negotiating with Ayatollah Khomeini for the release of the US military hostages, and has continued to dedicate his life to publicising repression. These days,, he rarely performs comedy, he says, but he's constantly on the road, lecturing on diet and ethics.

His latest CD, Dick Gregory's 21st Century State of the Union, shows no sign that he's mellowing with age, and includes an eloquent indictment of police assaults on the black community.

In the custody of certain officers, Gregory argues, "a black man is no safer than a Jew in Nazi Germany. When are you Negroes gonna learn to say: 'After you kill us, please don't have no investigation that takes six months and comes back with a verdict of justified homicide. This is a system that reduces you to a bunch of whimpering punks. Death is better.'"

It seems remarkable, considering the high rate of mortality in the protest movement, that Gregory himself was never killed. Did they try?

Gregory picks up the FBI memo. It's dated April 1968, and written in the kind of ominously * ambiguous language that Shakespearean kings use when they're dropping a gentle hint to the First Murderer. Addressed to the director of the Bureau, it recommends that measures be taken to "neutralize him. This should not be in the nature of an exposé. Instead, sophisticated completely untraceable means of neutralising Gregory should be developed."

He describes how his driver, "Big Mike", subsequently died at the wheel of Gregory's car, in what was recorded as an unsolved hit-and-run accident. Big Mike was returning from the airport - alone, because the comedian had missed his flight.

But Gregory survived - as always - and he has grown old with a dignity that, in the minds of some, has elevated him to a kind of sainthood. Which is not to say that the legacy of his endurance has been solely positive. The years of unwarranted imprisonment, death threats and beatings, have instilled in him a level of prudence which some might consider pathological. He is guarded about his movements, and still considers himself a possible target for assassination.

I've brought along the sleeve from one of his old comedy albums, which I ask him to sign for my son, but he says he won't dedicate anything in writing, even to a first name, on the grounds that his signature could somehow be used against him.

"He's only seven," I tell him.

He signs it, instead: "To you."

He has immersed himself in the detail of assassinations in which government complicity is suspected or proven. They include the cases of John and Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King - the last of which inspired Gregory's book Murder in Memphis. The battered corpse in the photograph he's brought along is that of Ron Brown, the first black Secretary of State for Commerce, reported as having died in a plane crash in Bosnia, in 1998. Gregory picks up the picture and points out a mark on the skull.

"He died from that bullet hole, right there."

He is readier than most to see the hand of the state in other tragedies, including the deaths of John Lennon and Lenny Bruce.

"You know what I've learnt?" he says. "That they don't like nobody that bugs them."

Gregory, who has a tendency to become powerfully attached to certain beliefs and theories, gave a radio interview after 9/11 in which he seemed to imply that the collapse of the World Trade Centre was caused by explosives planted at the base of the buildings. On his website, he maintains that Michael Jackson is the innocent victim of a racially motivated campaign.

Why is he carrying the toothpaste packet?

Gregory points to the small print, which includes the advice: "If ingested, call the poison control centre."

"How many people," he asks me, "do you think notice that?"

There's no question that Gregory - unlike, say, the singer Paul Robeson - has survived his struggle with his sanity intact. That said, I don't think it would be too unkind to describe this remarkable man as eccentric.

"Dick was under such so much pressure for so long," one leading black American comedian told me, off the record. "To some degree, I think they got to him."

As recently as 1992, a St Louis patrolman, in a widely publicised incident, unsuccessfully tried to frame the campaigner for shoplifting, motivated not by his controversial past - he didn't recognise his prisoner - but by his attitude when hailed as "boy".

When Gregory was brought in to the station, the black desk clerk greeted his arresting officer with the words: "Boy, have you fucked up this time."

He was immediately released. "They all had a good laugh," Gregory says, "but it wasn't funny to me."

Looking back on his life, with such incidents in mind, does he feel as if he's failed?

"Failed?" Gregory replies. "God, no. I wanted to be free. I patterned myself after people I thought were free. In my opinion nothing that happened in Mississippi, say, was a failure. We marched. We were beaten. People died, but we did not fail. Who would ever have believed that Malcolm X's face would be on a US stamp? Or that - as we sit here together at the same table - the head of the Mississippi State Troopers is a black man? Who could have seen that coming?"

Gregory pauses.

"I'll tell you who saw it coming. They did. The redneck sheriffs and the KKK. Never before in the history of this planet has anyone made the progress in a 40- year period that African-Americans have achieved in America. Mississippi has more elected black officials than any other state. Mississippi has 61 black mayors. Failed?" He smiles. "This was their nightmare."

Last year, Dick Gregory was diagnosed as suffering from lymphoma. When I ask him about the prognosis, he produces another clutch of papers from his file - detailed reports showing that all traces of cancer have been eliminated; his most recent reprieve.

Before he leaves, he produces a copy of his latest volume of memoirs, Callus on My Soul. He signs it ("To You"), then leaves, striding across the lobby with a fluid grace that marks him out as a former athlete, off to embark on his extraordinary last lap.

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