The celebration of the life of Dick Gregory on Sept. 16 at the City of Praise church in Landover, Md., was over seven hours of eclectic diversity from a serenade by Native Americans to a musical tribute with Ayanna, Greg’s daughter, and Stevie Wonder, to speakers MSNBC’s Lawrence O’ Donnell to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, to the fiery Rep. Maxine Waters, who vowed to help impeach that “thing” in the White House.
There were torrents of “hallelujah” and especially “As-Salaam Alaikum” as Nation of Islam head Louis Farrakhan began a profoundly uplifting eulogy.
It was fascinating to see how a man born on Oct. 12, 1932, so far down in the cracks of society could rise so far. Jailed countless times in the fight for human rights, 13 books written, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, movie roles, a celebrated humorist and global humanitarian. Born 85 years ago in the slums of St. Louis, his mother, Lucille Gregory, had to put plastic on her feet to keep them from getting wet as she walked to work. A White man knocked out two of his front teeth at 10 years old for touching a White woman as he shined her shoes. The family was chronically evicted for the inability to pay their $18 monthly rent.
What kind of journalist would I be if it had not been for Gregory becoming my mentor and coach for more than three decades as I tried to survive as a pioneering Black woman journalist in White newsrooms? I have pondered this thought since his death, but intently on his birthday, Oct. 12. He had an incredible impact on my career.
He was the one who pushed me to go out on a limb for unpopular people and for causes even if the limb broke off; how not to discount conspiracies just because it is safer to believe a lie rather than an unpopular truth; and how to look and expose the liars, the exploiters in high places, no matter who and where they were.
Should I state the obvious of how badly Gregory is still needed today?
Of course, following the Dick Gregory stylebook meant you wouldn’t have a job long. In some newsrooms the reward for not toeing the company line, disbelieving that White is always right, and caring more for the masses at the bottom than the big shots at the top means a swift kick out the door.
It was not unusual for Gregory to entice me to venture off to distant lands or to stick my nose into events that sounded and looked correct but would turn out to be rotten to the core.
Gregory was a renowned health enthusiast who developed weight loss products, such as the Bahamian Diet, that were popular in the states. In 1985, he developed a low-cost nutritional product to fight famine and took 50 truckloads of it to Ethiopia. I went with him and I saw hundreds dying from starvation in resettlement camps in the desert. I held in my hands 5-year-old children so emaciated that they looked half their ages, and women so exhausted that they collapsed as they walked. The products he delivered saved many lives.
I began to understand that hunger and homelessness in the world where people are dying from obesity is criminal. It is not because of a lack of resources, but a lack of will, and the failure to hold governments, such as that in Ethiopia accountable. Gregory’s amazing success in Ethiopia did not get press in the United States. But he told me his mission was saving lives, which was all that mattered.
Even amidst such tears, Gregory could bring humor. On the way back home from Ethiopia, the plane stopped briefly in Rome and much to the surprise of his friends, he grabbed his bag and headed for the exit.
“Why are you getting off here?” I hollered at him. With a smile and a swagger he answered, “Don’t forget, I am an international nigger,” which left the rest of us laughing.
Dick Gregory was often shunned and slammed as a “conspiracy nut.” In time, he usually would be proved right. Greg and I would often meet at some out-of-the way place. He would pull out his big, battered brown briefcase jammed with reports and facts counter to what the news bosses wanted to see.
One day in 1996, he called me: “Barbara, you know they murdered Ron Brown.” Brown was the first Black U.S. Secretary of Commerce. On April 3, 1996, Brown died in a plane crash on a mountaintop in Croatia along with 34 others.
“C’mon Greg, don’t tell me that, I am in enough trouble on my job.” I knew news executives generally hated conspiracies. Besides who would murder all those people to get at one man even though Brown had been threatening to expose others in high places involved in illegal campaign funding rather than taking the fall himself?
Nevertheless I met with Greg. He showed me some disturbing reports. First the New York Times had reported that Brown’s body was so mangled it would be virtually impossible to identify. Yet, Greg had a picture that clearly showed Brown’s body intact at the crash site.
Time magazine had reported there had been a terrible storm that contributed to the crash, but later reports showed only drizzling rain. Several investigators at Dover, Delaware, where Brown’s body was carried for examination, reported a circular hole in his skull that some forensic experts said appeared to be from a gunshot; but the X-rays which could have cleared up the matter turned up missing. In addition the manager of the airport where the plane crashed reportedly committed “suicide,” before investigators could conduct an interview.
Whether Brown was murdered was never proven and few, if any, news groups tried to get to the bottom of how he died. Gregory and Rep. Maxine Waters planted yellow crime-scene tape around the Institute of Pathology to highlight the case and Gregory was arrested for refusing to leave the scene. I was also able to write several columns about Brown for USA Today and several schools were named after Brown. And for many, that appears to be enough.
When the establishment would not budge to find the truth behind the assassination of leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, Gregory wrote books to shame the system for their closed minds.
In “Callus on My Soul,” he told how “the brothers who shot Malcolm X were paid by the CIA,” who he said had rented the Audubon Ballroom where Malcolm X was murdered a week before.
In “Code Name Zorro: The Murder of Martin Luther King Jr.” (with Mark Lane), he wrote how on April 4, 1968, Dr. King was murdered in a conspiracy between the Memphis Police Department, the Mafia and the CIA, which had a Black man planted on the balcony of the Memphis Lorraine Motel at the time of the shooting.
The kinds of information Gregory unearthed hardly ever received major news coverage because his facts ran counter to the acceptable narratives of the news operations. In addition to those of us who insisted upon using Gregory’s truths rather than that of the major institutions were viewed as untrustworthy and soon fell out of favor.
The Iran-Contra story, with my determination to ensure Greg received his just due, was the last straw that helped separate me from my job as a national reporter at a major Chicago newspaper.
In 1979 66 hostages had been taken by Iranian revolutionaries, who were threatening to kill them. Greg made his way to Iran to pray and fast for the hostages’ release. The State Department and newsrooms were feverishly looking hard for an American who could talk to the Ayatollah. When the Ayatollah learned that Greg was in Iran and had fasted for peace during his four-month stay, losing 51 pounds, he invited him to meet with him. Greg said the Ayatollah thanked Greg for coming and also prayed that the hostage crisis would end peacefully.
Greg called me from Tehran giving me a firsthand report of this significant development. Once the bombing and shootings in the background sounded so real, I literally ducked under my desk, thinking the noise was from outside my window. The Chicago Tribune ran the story for only one edition but pulled it in later ones.
I was terribly upset by this because I knew if a White man had met with the Ayatollah in the midst of such a crisis it would have been major news. Eventually I wrote of his heroic venture in a cover story for Playboy Magazine. Shortly after that, I was forced to part company with the newspaper.
On page 199 of Greg’s book “Callus on My Soul,” he wrote: “There is no better writer than Barbara Reynolds. … She understands the way this government works and the trickery that comes with it.”
Clearly my understanding of the workings of certain institutions and government came from my coach Gregory. It has left me well equipped to monitor and write about the Trump presidency and those to come — what is seen and unseen.
Thank you, Mr. Gregory.