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The Pain And Passion Of Dick Gregory
Published on Thursday, August 24, 2000 in the Boston Globe
The Pain And Passion Of Dick Gregory
by Wil Haygood
 
WASHINGTON - Dick Gregory won't go home.

His wife, Lil, has been putting up with it for 41 years now. Just like their 10 children. And now, Gregory has cancer. And he still won't go home.

Word has been seeping out. Dropping into the ears of those movement veterans. Those two words - the movement - still have a poetic ring, but when the civil rights movement was in full swing, it could be downright scary. In Mississippi and Alabama and other places, places where fear could hang in the air like a piece of lynch rope, places where dogs were barking not for food but for feet, buttocks, anything on a scampering body.

There were people who left home for the movement and the next time their mama or daddy saw them, they had their eyes closed, in a casket. ''People from the movement been catching up to me who I thought were dead,'' Gregory says.

He once ran for mayor of Chicago. He was under the impression that Chicago goons were going to kill him. He believed Richard Daley, the mayor then, knew about the plot. Or alleged plot.

He once ran for the White House. He was arrested by US Treasury agents for printing and distributing fake American currency with his picture on the bills as campaign literature.

When he told Lil about his lymphoma, she broke down, cried and cried. ''I said to her, `If you think I'm going to leave you back here for your high school sweetheart, you are out of your mind. As much whiskey as I drank, as many cigarettes as I've smoked, I'm not going to leave this earth before you.''' Lil dried her eyes. Put the tears inside her chest.

Lil Gregory, who lives in Plymouth, Mass., knows the movement owns her husband. The way oxygen owns the human body. He's ever gone from home, out there, protesting. In Memphis, Shreveport, Los Angeles. It's as if Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King and all the others who were blown away won't let Dick Gregory go.

Yet, cancer can snatch a life - a child's, a grown-up's - just like that. It can snatch the life of an icon of the movement just like that, too.

Doctors have told Gregory that the lymphoma is 75 percent contained. Gregory's selected course of treatment right now is herbs, although radiation remains a possibility.

''I will bother it,''he says of his cancer. ''It won't bother me.''

Whatever took him through those days and nights of Mississippi and Alabama and jailings and CIA agents following him - or were they? - will serve him just fine now, he believes.

He's 130 pounds.

Bony as a toy.

He'll be starting another fast in October. ''I'm going to start a fast on my birthday where I'm not going to eat any more solid food the rest of my life till we solve this problem of police brutality.''

Yes, another fast.

Not exactly what the doctor ordered.

Daily walk

It's 4:30 in the morning. Dick Gregory is on his daily 5-mile walk around Rock Creek Park, gliding through the inky dark. ''All the muggers and robbers are asleep,'' he says.

He was born Richard Claxton Gregory 67 years ago. He used to be a stand-up comic. And quite a famous one.

Gregory grew up running cross-country in St. Louis, long afternoons in sweet autumn light. ''It was lovely,'' he says. ''The great thing about running the long distance is you run at your integrity. Running made me forget I was poor.''

He ran and ran, around the winos on the street, right to the race track. ''When I was little, if I'd heard Bob Hope was running across country to help hungry people, I'd have slept with a smile.''

When he wasn't running, he watched movies. The movies and all their fantasies scarred his growing up. ''Whenever there was pain in the movies, there was also some glamour.'' But the scar was complex. ''The women I saw in the movies I didn't want,'' he says. ''Beulah the maid. Butterfly McQueen. The epitome of black love I didn't see. So, locked in a little child's memory bank is a woman who doesn't look like his aunt or mama.''

On Sundays, he'd scan church pews and see old men and women with arthritis, with pain, and they were uncomplaining. Recognizing the pain of others made him feel righteous.

A scholarship came from Southern Illinois University. He quit before graduation. In Chicago, the lapsed runner discovered he had a funny bone. He started doing stand-up.

One afternoon in Chicago, he met Lil Smith, a secretary. Dating led to passion. ''No son of mine will ever get a girl pregnant and not marry her,'' Gregory's mother had always told him. Lil got pregnant. ''That's how I got married,'' he recalls. ''It was no glamour.''

They honeymooned - if you can call it that - on a Greyhound bus, going to St. Louis to live with his sister. Then he hit the road to do comedy.

There was a gig at the Playboy Club in Chicago. Frozen-food executives, a lily-white audience, made up the crowd. They howled. ''It was the first time they had seen a black comic who was not bucking his eyes, wasn't dancing and singing and telling mother-in-law jokes,'' says Gregory. ''Just talking about what I read in the newspaper.''

Time magazine wrote him up. ''Jack Paar had me on his show, and from then on, I was out of the box,'' he says.

Faint light is squeezing through the trees of Rock Creek Park. ''Here's how life is,'' Gregory says into the ebbing dark. ''You start out in darkness and keep moving. This is what they mean when they say, `Joy cometh in the morning.'''

Two hours later he's back in the house he uses in Washington that belongs to a friend of Marion Barry, the former mayor. You see, before his years as mayor and the crack cocaine, the adulterous affairs, the jail stint, Barry was in the movement, down in Mississippi. Brave as hell. Gregory's got bags lying around the house, a leather bag full of clothes, smaller ones with pills, vitamins, concoctions. He's rootless. Without office or staff. Hotel lobbies make for fine office space, though. In Washington, Gregory does a lot of radio. ''All the embassies are here. The FBI. The CIA. They listen to me,'' he believes.

In their faces

When the movement unfurled, Gregory, like so many, went to Mississippi, to Greenwood, whiskey jumping in his blood like grasshoppers. He'd get right in the face of redneck sheriffs and rednecks without badges. ''I'd cuss 'em out. I got it from the movies. Watching Alan Ladd, Humphrey Bogart.''

Jail didn't bother him either. He'd nap. ''I learned long ago that when `right' goes to jail, the jail becomes the prisoner.''

In 1964, he went to Moscow because he thought black soldiers were being harassed for dating white women. A UPI reporter tapped him on the shoulder - something about movement workers. Missing. In Mississippi. ''I went to the airport and got on a plane. Flew from there to Paris. Paris to New York. New York to Jackson. That night I was there, in Mississippi, talking to Sheriff Rainey, putting my finger in his face, saying, `You know you did it. And we're going to get you!'''

(Lawrence Rainey was one of those later arrested by FBI agents in connection with the murder of the three civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.)

Politics seemed like a good challenge-the-system idea to Gregory, so he started running. First for mayor in Chicago. ''They told me Daley was so outraged. Just the fact that a nigger would dare run against him.''

Some folks laughed. But he saw the drama unspooling out across the nation's landscape. ''Carl Stokes, who ran for mayor of Cleveland, said to me, `My wife said, ''Why don't you run for mayor? That comedian's running against Daley in Chicago.'''''

He ran for the White House. ''For a little white child sitting at home watching a black man say, `I'm a presidential candidate and this is why I think you should vote for me,' well, it plants a seed. A little seed.''

When he printed fake American currency with his picture on the bills, the Treasury Department was hardly amused. He was arrested for forgery and later released, but not before garnering wide publicity. ''When that story hit I was in demand,'' he says. ''People called me up and said, `I'll get some of your literature.''' He got 11/2 million votes. ''I woke up with power.''

He wrote an autobiography. Actually, he's no writer, and joyfully admits it. ''I just dumped my head in a tape recorder.'' The book is called ''nigger'' - lowercase n. At a rally in Birmingham, Ala., staring out into a sea of black and white faces, he held his book aloft and said, ''All of you white folks should take a `nigger' to bed tonight.''

Before Richard Pryor, there was Dick Gregory.

One newspaper critic referred to the autobiography as ''powerful, ugly, and beautiful.''

''One day,'' says Gregory, ''100 years from now, folks will get that book and dissect it.''

Gregory's mother died while he was in college. His autobiography is dedicated to her: ''Dear Momma - Wherever you are, if ever you hear the word `nigger' again, remember they are advertising my book.''

Losing comrades

He kept moving. Stopping for the funerals.

Martin Luther King didn't go home. Least not to wife Coretta.

Malcolm didn't go home. Least not to wife Betty.

Michael Schwerner didn't go home. Least not to wife Rita.

Dead in the movement. Eyes watching God.

Dick Gregory had a dream. In that dream there was a lot of fire. The fire had engulfed Chicago. When he awoke from the dream, he had decided to leave Chicago with the family.

They moved to Massachusetts, to a farm in Plymouth, in 1973. Lil had to raise the kids. There was plenty of money, boom times for the Gregorys. He was making $20,000 a week. ''I gave a lot of it to the movement,'' he confesses.

He did get a Rolls-Royce. But time can evaporate money. ''My dad knew how to make money,'' says son Christian, ''but not how to keep money.''

The Rolls was repossessed. It's a long story. The short version: He was behind in the payments. The Rolls man called and his words were on the funky side: ''Someone of your stature shouldn't be behind in car payments.''

They lost the farm in 1992. Another long story. The short version: Some investments went bad; they were behind on the payments; mortgage lenders aren't swayed by sad stories.

Lil moved off the farm and into the town of Plymouth. Her husband stayed out in the world, moving and moving.

And he began running and marathoning again. Like he did in childhood. But now it was for different reasons. Against hunger, poverty, apartheid. ''You're running for something other than to beat somebody's child,'' he says. After some races he'd wake up dehydrated. He looked like a cadaver. But his eyes were sweet with contentment. Lil caught up to him on the news, through phone calls. Worried herself sick, but never worried her love for him one millimeter from her heart.

He ran cross country once. The whole country, weaving down roads. Lil thought he had lost his mind. ''After you do your first 50, ain't nobody there,'' he says. ''Then you hear the wind talking: `Nigger, who do you think you are? Ain't nobody out here. I'm going to inflict on you what you've inflicted on other mother's children. Even when you walked up and slapped people on the butt and said `Good luck,' you didn't mean it. I'm getting ready to do to your butt what you did to others.''

Sometimes when Gregory gets back to Washington, Keith Silver drives him around. Silver's been in the movement for years. ''The only thing bad about him is he goes on these fasts,'' Silver says. ''I hope he doesn't for the next 30 days. I want to eat. I'm sitting next to him at these banquets and they don't bring me any food because they think I'm fasting too. And I say, `Whoa, whoa, wait a minute, I'm eating over here!'''

Fighter more than father

And through all this - the protests, the rallies, the walking, the running - what of the 10 children? Mostly, they've only had Lil, their mother.

''It was never in my psyche that I'm going to be a great father,'' Gregory says. ''Mine was: I'm going to be a great fighter for the liberation, whatever it takes.''

Once, he was at a rally in Atlanta, sitting onstage next to businessman Bertram Lee. Gregory started whispering to Lee about money woes, the children's school fees. Lee wrote him an $18,000 check. Then activist Hosea Williams arrived, bloodied from a local protest. Williams started preaching; more money was needed for the movement. ''I gave him my check,'' says Gregory. ''Damn the family.''

So Lil blows out the birthday candles. Lil talks to the children about broken love affairs. Lil checks on the grandchildren. ''People ask me about being a father and not being there,'' Gregory says. ''I say, `Jack the Ripper had a father. Hitler had a father. Don't talk to me about family.'''

Gregory's father, now dead, was estranged from his mother for years. ''I don't even know if I went to the funeral,'' he says. ''Ask Lil.''

His children seem to have adjusted to a famous and absent patriarch. Not a one in jail. Not a one on drugs. College degrees everywhere. ''Children adapt quickly,'' says Michele, the oldest daughter. ''It seemed normal that he was supposed to be out of the house. Years later we probably would have appreciated it if he would have been home more.''

Christian, a chiropractor who lives in Washington, sees his father the most. ''He's been so busy being Dick Gregory,'' Christian says, ''he has forgotten about Richard Claxton.'' It is said with more than a little affection.

There are still IRS debts. There was the financial calamity that befell his Bahamian diet product. At one time, Christian had 400-pound converts to the diet program on the beach down in Nassau, marching them as part of the regimen. ''It was like a circus. I had a whistle,'' he remembers.

Lil acknowledges their lifestyle is odd. Her husband can swing through Massachusetts for an event and won't even have time to stop home. In and out. The movement's raging. ''I know other people look at it and say, `Boy, this is kind of strange.' But it works for us,'' she says.

There have been rewards, she says: the children, her travels all over the world with him. And sometimes, there's just the hell that can be love.

''He should be angry from the sense of abandonment,'' says Christian, who believes his father hasn't gotten his just rewards from the movement for sacrifices made.

''He's forgotten and not respected, never even had a tribute from these civil rights organizations,'' says Cathy Hughes, who owns radio station WOL in Washington, where Gregory sometimes offers his commentary. Hughes starts ruminating about her friendship with Gregory, and before long she herself starts up. ''They wanted him dead,'' she says.

Who?

''The Mafia. The government. He was going after the drug dealers.''

Well.

Recognition

Dick Gregory may finally be at the cusp of mainstream nods. Southern Illinois University will be inducting him into its Athletic Hall of Fame in September. Then there's a tribute to Gregory in the nation's capital planned for Oct. 9, at the Kennedy Center, hosted by the National Council of Negro Women.

And so he keeps moving, steeped in the glory and pain of the movement, right through to today's headlines. Sometimes there's so much in his brain that he tries to get out - so much curiosity, governmental shenanigans, declassified FBI and CIA documents, reopened Mississippi murder investigations.

It's night now, and Gregory is in a cavernous room in a Washington hotel. Willie Edward Gary, a big-time lawyer out of Florida, is being feted. And there's Jesse himself up on stage. Yes, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, from the movement, giving the invocation. Gregory is in the middle of the ballroom, filled with 3,000 people, swaying on his heels. Jesse says something about Mississippi, and that black boy found hanging from a tree there. Investigators, including the FBI, concluded it was a suicide, unrequited love. But Jesse is up on stage saying the investigation must go on, that there are doubts. And Gregory beams. Gary is calling dignitaries to the stage - entertainers, congressmen - and toward the end he says, ''And my good friend, Dick Gregory.'' And there goes Gregory, tired, striding across stage gently, like someone who has risen from the table of the Last Supper with that Jesus beard of his. He'll be taking off soon for Connecticut. ''The movement don't owe me nothing. I owe everything to the movement,'' he had said in that Rock Creek morning darkness. After Hartford, there's something on the West Coast. Lil's at home in an empty bed, loving him as if he were there, beside her. And now Dick Gregory is on stage, swaying sweetly, clapping his hands like he's in church. The smile on his face is beatific.

Damn the cancer.

Joy cometh in the morning.

Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company

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