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One measure of Dick Gregory’s commitment to eradicating the blight of racial injustice from America’s potential democratic paradise was a marked willingness to risk nearly everything he valued in pursuit of it. Prospective employers and audiences alike could easily turn their backs on a comedian specializing in his brand of in-your-face political satire, not to mention “blackball” someone increasingly identified with freedom marchers.
In fact, the political component expressed in the pages of Nigger was not something in which publisher E.P Dutton, according to Gregory, was interested at all. As explained in conversation with the late Dr. Marable Manning (1950-2011, author of the biography Malcolm X, A Life of Reinvention) just before receiving the Hung Tao Choy Mei Leadership Institute's 2006 Paul Robeson "Here I Stand" award, the publisher expected the comic to deliver a manuscript showcasing his ethnic “wit and wisdom” with minimal focus on the racial realities of the time. What they wanted, essentially, was a joke book which left no room for expansions of consciousness.
However, having already received an advance of $200,000 for the proposed work, Gregory opted to partner with white author Robert Lipsyte to produce a book which could simultaneously: 1) help raise people’s awareness about the effects of racial disparity in the United States; 2) share humor based on the human condition as he lived it; and 3) inspire participation in the Civil Rights Movement. This unexpected gamble at first stunned both the publisher and the public but ultimately yielded across-the-board rewards for all stakeholders involved.
Partners in the Struggle
Further evidence of the humanitarian’s unyielding commitment came early on when he insisted on sharing his battle for civil and human rights with his beloved wife, Lillian. Living with that decision proved difficult more than once. As her husband, for example, struggled to observe principles of nonviolent conflict resolution while policemen in the South spat in his face and white supremacists tossed a grenade into a church where he gathered with other activists, Lillian found herself alone when their infant son, Richard Jr., died.
Sometime later, she took Gregory’s place on the front lines of a protest in Selma, Alabama. There, she was arrested and spent a week in jail while pregnant with twins.
Over the years, as their family continued to grow and racial oppression remained a deadly reality, the activist-entertainer made it clear to his children that their personal time and enjoyments as a family would have to come second to the demands of “the movement.” It was the same kind of bitter, but possibly unavoidable, pill of historical destiny which the children of other iconic leaders (again, consider King and Malcolm X) had to swallow.
People who laughed at Gregory’s famously racially-tinged monologues, as well as protesters who marched alongside him at various rallies around the country (through the South, yes, but also in Chicago, Washington, DC, and elsewhere) recognized within his personality characteristics associated with prophets.
That specific aspect of his demeanor is particularly noticeable in chapter seven of Nigger . The section contains a transcript of his response to a startling discovery. Preparing to address activists gathered in a church in Selma to coordinate the registration of Black voters, Gregory observed that the front row of the church had been “filled that night with policemen pretending to be newspaper reporters and taking notes” (p. 200). Rather than becoming dismayed or frightened, he used this development to address the infiltrators directly:
“…What do you think would happen to Christ tonight if He arrived in this town a black man and wanted to register to vote on Monday? What do you think would happen? Would you be there? You would? Then how come you’re not out there with these kids, because He said that whatever happens to the least, happens to us all… Let’s analyze the situation…” (p. 202).