Dick Gregory knows the power of laughter. He is our mirror in his Keynote Address for Black History Month at Bryn Mawr College Thursday, Feb. 28th 7:30 p.m. at Thomas Great Hall on campus. It's free and open to the public. First come basis. Bryn Mawr College is located in the Philadelphia suburb of Bryn Mawr.
Here's the exclusive interview I did with Dick Gregory before his keynoter at Bryn Mawr College. Enjoy!
Q. As an athlete, you began running as a young man. In fact, it was your running that got you into Southern Illinois University. What were you running from?
A. From myself. Me. Blackness. Conditions black folks were forced to live under. Didn't know that at the time. Know it now. I also went to movies a lot in my youth. Did it to get away. People do it to get away from themselves. I'd walk out of the theater after the show was over, and I wanted to be the people I saw on the screen. I wanted to be the white folks. To be the Lone Ranger, not Tonto. (Now Johnny Depp is playing Tonto.) I'd be walking in an alley after the movie lost in thought about the movie. As a child, I heard people say of others, "He has good hair." I didn't have good hair. Skinny, nappy hair, and black was me.
Q. What were some of those conditions you were forced to live under?
A. After being drafted and serving in the army for a year and a half at Ft. Hood in Texas, Ft.Lee in Virginia and Ft. Smith in Arkansas, I decided to go to Chicago to get work in nightclubs. I grew up in St. Louis. Four boys, two girls and my mother. Mother didn't know where dad was. In those days,
black comics could not work white night clubs. Blacks could sing and dance in the white night clubs but weren't allowed to stand flat-footed and talk to white folks, which is what a comic does. Playboy's Hugh Hefner, who saw me work at Herman Roberts Show Bar, discovered me. Hefner was in the first row. He birthed me. He launched my career.
Q. You were the first African-American stand-up comedian to appear before both black and white audiences.You paved the way for Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock. What was your first appearance like at the Chicago Playboy Club? How did you feel before you went on stage?
A. I was nervous. I was slipping and sliding in the snow on my way over there. I had been hired to perform in the Carousel room. Except that night it had been rented by a private party from Alabama of men in the frozen food business. So the management wanted to cancel me. But I was a little late, so I just ran up on the stage and started performing, missing the manager assigned to tell me I had been cancelled. (Being a little late, turned out to be lucky for me.) I was a hit and ended up performing onstage for them for several hours. My best line was "I spent twenty years in Alabama one night." That got a big laugh.
Q. Rosa Parks, whose 100th birthday was celebrated on February 4th this year, had a hard time living in Alabama in 1955. When she tried to take a bus, the bus driver kicked her off when she wouldn't give up her seat to a white man.
A. What most people don't know is this was not the first time Rosa Parks had a confrontation with this particular bus driver. A few times, he had driven off and left her stranded after she had paid her fare. He did it because she wouldn't flirt with him. In those days, blacks paid their fares at the front of the bus, then had to step off the bus and go to the door at the back of the bus to get on the bus!
Q. And now during Black History Month the U.S. Post Office has issued a commemorative postage stamp to honor Rosa Parks. Some students in your audience at Bryn Mawr College may be the future captains of industry if given a chance. What advice do you have for them when they are running a company, hiring and firing workers and calling the shots?
A. Don't discriminate in the workplace. How much talent are we losing in this country by not giving others a chance because of their race or gender? We have a talent drain in the U.S. because of discrimination. Think about it. Men make high heels for women, but don't wear those heels themselves!
Q. What happened when you turned down a gig because they wouldn't let black comics sit on a couch?
A. It was Tonight Starring Jack Paar before Johnny Carson got the gig. I wanted to be on it so bad. Everyone did. It would make you a star overnight. When Time magazine did a big story on me, Jack Paar's bookers called me. But I said "no" because black comics would perform their routines on the show, but after they were done, that was it. They were never invited to sit on the couch and talk with Jack Paar. When I turned it down, I hung up the phone and started crying. I wanted it so bad, but I just couldn't do it under those conditions.
Q. Did you ever get on the Tonight Show with Jack Paar?
A. After I turned down his bookers several times, Jack Paar called me himself and wanted to know why. I ended up sitting on the couch. I talked about my wife and children on the show. Afterwards, people were calling the show and saying, "I didn't know black children and white children were the same." The next day after sitting on that couch, my fee skyrocketed from $250 per week to $5000 per night! That's how much more people were willing to pay just because I got to sit on that couch. So, it was an economic thing, too. Not just about sitting on a couch.
Q. Quentin Tarantino won Best Original Screenplay for Django Unchained, criticized by filmmaker Spike Lee for its use of a certain racial epithet repeatedly. Christoph Waltz also won Best Supporting Actor.
A. It deserved the wins. Django Unchained has everything in it. It's bloody, funny, and a great love story. Its winning means more people will go to see it. It's the number one money-making cowboy movie already in the history of the planet. It's made $200 million so far and that's just in the U.S. Not counting foreign distribution.
Q. You have said Django Unchained, "freed the inside of me." What did you mean?
A. I just turned 80 years old last October. I didn't understand slavery until I saw Django Unchained. How chains cut into the skin. How they threw those they saw as "uppity" black women who wouldn't let them have their way with them into scalding hot water in tubs as punishment for not having sex with them.
Q. Lincoln garnered some academy awards, too. Daniel Day-Lewis won as Best Actor. What did you think of the film?
A. It was brilliant. It's not really about the Civil War between the states. It's about wheeling and dealing politically to get legislation passed.
Q. What about actor Tommy Lee Jones and his at-home surprise at the end of the film?
A. I loved it. Lydia Hamilton Smith (Epatha Merkerson), was an historical figure. Look her up. You will be quite surprised.
Q. What would you say to young people who want to do, what you do?
A. Don't do it! Lots of uneducated people in show business running it. Lots of successes in show business, come from excesses. Fear there. Reliance on drugs to perform and to keep performing. No school you can go to will prepare you to be a comic. There's no training to be an entertainer. Where did the best laugh come from that you've ever had? Was it from a professional comedian? No, it was from friends and family. Timing is what makes a comedian. There's a rhythm to it. Be a writer. Comedians don't make money compared to writers. That's because the writers can work for many comedians at the same time and earn a lot more than the comedians do.
Q. You and your wife Lillian were blessed with 10 children. If your own children wanted to go into show business, what would you tell them?
A. I wouldn't stop them, but I'd tell them show business is the closest you can come to doing something illegal and still be legal.
Q. You were the first African-American to run for president. You ran in 1968.
A. I got 1.5 million votes representing the Freedom and Peace Party. Republican Richard Nixon only beat sitting Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a Democrat by 500,000 votes to become president. If Humphrey had gotten my votes, he would have won. I was born in the ghetto. My running for president showed the power of one to make a difference.
Q. What do you have to say about the job President Obama is doing in the White House?
A. I had never heard of him. I wanted him to be president because he looks like me. There are children who were born in 2008 when he was first elected, who will be eight years old when he finishes his presidency who have only seen a black man as president of the United States. So they will be surprised to see a white president. Those children will have grown up seeing a black man as the most powerful man on the planet. So if their parents were to talk about how dumb and inferior black folks are behind closed doors at home, their children will not believe them. As Obama rises up, women rise up, too. He gives people hope.
Q. Mr. Dick Gregory, presidential candidate, comedian, author, actor, army, postal worker, civil rights activist, entrepreneur in nutrition and the health food industry, you have done it all. What have you liked doing the best?
A. Look at a spider web. It all comes together to make a whole. Every move I was making, would take me to another place.
Q. Of all the books you have written, which would you recommend students and the public, read first?
A. Code Name Zorro: The Murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nigger: An Autobiography.
Q. Any tips for students to make the most of their education?
A. Yes. Sleep deprivation can be a killer. Don't pop pills to stay awake or pull all-niters to study. Dehydration is also a killer. Drink plenty of water every day. Another killer is lack of physical fitness. Schools must teach students how to live and not just how to make a living. I would ask students if they know how to live. Be lovable, kind and peaceful. One hundred fifty years ago, if you would have told them horses would be gone as a means of everyday transportation, you would have been locked up in a mental hospital. Look how the world has changed and it keeps changing. Finally, when you get out into the world, you are going to have to work hard to clean up the mess we've left you. Recess is over.
Q. What's your takeaway message for the students?
A. Once I accept injustice; I become injustice. For example, paper mills give off a terrible stench. But the people who work there, don't smell it. Remember, Dr. King was assassinated when he went to work for garbage collectors. To help them as workers to enforce their rights. They couldn't smell the stench of the garbage all around them anymore. They were used to it. They would eat their lunch out of a brown bag sitting on the garbage truck. One day, a worker was sitting inside the back of the truck on top of the garbage, and got crushed to death because no one knew he was there.