Marc MorialOp-EdOpinion

MORIAL: Dick Gregory Documentary Sets Record Straight on Activist Comedian’s Legacy

“I chose to be an agitator. The next time you put your underwear in the washing machine, take the agitator out, and all you’re going to end up with are some dirty, wet drawers.” — Dick Gregory

In the four years since we lost comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, his powerful voice has been missed amid the recent broadening and intensifying movement for racial justice and equity. As the nation marked the 56th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act this week, few remembered Gregory as someone who put not only his career but his very life on the line in support of voting rights. He was among the thousands arrested during the iconic Birmingham Campaign of 1963 that flooded America’s newspapers and televisions with violent images of protestors being attacked with firehoses and police dogs. That fall, he spoke for hours in Selma, rallying hundreds of Black residents to line up at the voter registration office on “Freedom Day.”

The following summer, when voting activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner went missing, a $25,000 reward for information, raised by Gregory, led to the discovery of their bodies. A new documentary, “The One and Only Dick Gregory,” sets the record straight on Gregory’s legacy. I was honored to be involved in several events surrounding the film’s screening at the Martha’s Vineyard African-American Film Festival last week:

On Wednesday, I took part in a panel discussion on critical race theory, “The Intersection of Race, Culture & Creativity,” along with the Rev. Dante R. Quick, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens, and Adrianne C. Smith, senior partner and chief diversity and inclusion officer at FleishmanHillard.

Thursday morning was a special Martha’s Vineyard edition of ReMARCs Live, when I was joined by the festival’s co-founders Stephanie Taveras-Rance and Floyd A.B. Rance III.

Then, following the film’s screening, I led a conversation with the director, Andre Gaines.

The release of the documentary and the discussions around it are especially meaningful to me. Dick Gregory was both a personal friend and a strong supporter of the Urban League movement. He was a guest at my wedding, and spent two weeks campaigning for me in New Orleans neighborhoods during my 1994 runoff campaign for mayor. He was a frequent speaker at Urban League events.

The film recounts how Gregory’s stand-up comedy career took off after a bravura performance before an audience of white southerners at the Chicago Playboy Club … and how he sacrificed it all to dedicate himself to the civil rights movement. My predecessor at the National Urban League, Whitney M. Young Jr., felt that Gregory, with his biting satire mocking racism and segregation, could accomplish more for the cause of racial justice onstage than in the streets. Gregory’s response: “When America goes to war, she don’t send her comedians.”

He was arrested dozens of times, often beaten, and shot at least once. His body became an instrument for protest, as he endured hunger strikes over the Vietnam War, the Equal Rights Amendment, police brutality, apartheid, nuclear power, prison reform, drug abuse and Native American rights. “The One and Only Dick Gregory” comes at a moment when the rights for which Gregory fought and bled face a threat more serious than any in more than half a century. Gregory sacrificed fame, fortune and physical safety to secure these rights. We honor his legacy by defending them.

Morial is president/CEO of the National Urban League.

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