For many, Dick Gregory was the ‘woke’ elder who gave insights into the atrocities of the America system against blacks. For others, he was a brilliant comic and civil rights activist. Another group viewed him as a trouble maker and conspiracy theorist.
What many may not know is that the then Chicago-based Gregory was a write-in candidate in the 1968 American election of the Freedom and Peace Party. (Write-in candidate being a candidate in an election whose name does not appear on the ballot, but for whom voters may vote nonetheless by writing in the person’s name. The system is almost totally confined to elections in the United States.) Gregory also run as a write-in candidate for Chicago mayor in 1967. On Election Day he received about 47,000 votes. He had garnered an enthusiastic following among college students and working-class African-Americans.
Dick born Richard Claxton Gregory as part of his message had pledged if he won, “the first thing I would do is paint the White House black.“
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“I feel that the two party system is obsolete,” he said in another 1968 interview. “The two party system is so corrupt and immoral, they cannot solve the problems confronting the masses of the people in this country.” That and also his opposition to the Vietnam War all contributed to his decision to run as a protest form.
You might think Gregory’s presidential run was a joke but FBI director J. Edgar Hoover considered him enough threat that he ordered the Chicago office of the FBI to enlist the Outfit/Syndicate/Mafia in an effort to “neutralize” the comedian during the race.
Gregory had mocked the Outfit as “the filthiest snakes that live on this earth.” Hoover, ever the opportunist, wrote a memo to the special agent in charge in Chicago, Marlin Johnson, telling him to “consider using this statement in developing a counter-intelligence operation to alert La Costra Nostra (LCN) to Gregory’s attack on LCN.”
In another memo, Hoover urged Johnson to “neutralize” Gregory, adding that “sophisticated, completely untraceable means of neutralizing Gregory should be developed.” Johnson wrote back to Hoover that “Chicago is continuing to give the matter of discrediting Gregory top priority.”
“Gregory has traveled all over the country preaching Black Nationalist extremism, hatred and violence,” Hoover wrote. “Gregory uses his reputation as a … comedian to insure his vitriolic statements are reported by the press. He has made personal attacks on the President of the United States and the director of the FBI and on FBI agents.” Hoover meanwhile died in 1972, before the memos became public.
It took a whole decade before the sinister plot against him became public when files related to the bureau’s controversial surveillance activities on black radical and civil rights groups were first released.
“Do you realize what you have here?” Gregory said in 1978 when presented with Hoover memos tied to the effort. “This piece of paper has the director of the most powerful police agency in the history of this planet proposing to contact this Mafia so they could work together.”
The 1960s was a busy year for Gregory. He was arrested at multiple sit-ins, hosed down by Mayor Richard J. Daley’s Bridgeport neighbors when he led a march against racism in schools on Daley’s home.
Gregory earned scholarship to Southern Illinois University thanks to his athletic abilities in the mid-1950s. From there he was drafted into the armed forces where he got his first taste for comedy performing in military talent shows. He returned to university after being discharged but abandoned his studies to move to Chicago in an attempt to break into show business.
As a comic, he was one of the biggest as a $12,000-a-week headliner but the gigs soon dried up when his activism intensified. He was a headliner in Las Vegas when the casinos were still largely segregated, played all the hot clubs in New York and San Francisco, published a best-selling autobiography.
Before comedy, Gregory had served as an M.C. for black audiences at blues clubs in St. Louis and Chicago for three hours a night which served as rich fodder for his subsequent sets as a comic in demand.
He was friends with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X. He delivered food to N.A.A.C.P. offices in the South and marched in Selma, Alabama. In 1962, Gregory was approached by NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers to appear at a voter registration rally in Jackson, Mississippi.
Emilie Raymond noted “Gregory, more than any other celebrity in the 1960s, risked arrest and served jail time for civil rights causes.”
CORE National Director James Farmer recalled that “Gregory was one of the first people he called for support after hearing about the murder of three CORE activists—James Cheney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman—during the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer.”
Gregory’s caustic style of marrying humor and hard truths about race and politics was a source of concern for some politicians. By 1978, he had left comedy for full-time activism and political commentary.
Gregory was born into a poor Black family in St. Louis, Missouri but managed to become a “stand-out college athlete, army veteran, comedian, social commentator, civil rights campaigner, committed humanist, long-time vegan activist, conspiracy theorist, health food entrepreneur, and one-time candidate for the presidency of the United States.”
Gregory’s most successful public stunt came through the production of dollar-bill notes, which replaced the image of George Washington with his. Gregory was able to dodge charges of counterfeiting, in part because he argued that “everyone knows a black man will never be on a US bill.”
On August 19, 2017 Gregory passed in a Washington, D.C., hospital aged 84.