Celebrated comedian and activist gives colorful commemoration of MLK, Jr. 

Kierra Leggett | Editor-in-Chief

Dick Gregory spoke in the McKimmon Center Monday evening, commemorating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Though much of the audience found humor and substance in Gregory’s provocative language and subject matter, others were offended by it. The most vocal in his disappointment was Togbah Wleh, a graduate student.

During the Q& A portion of Monday’s commemoration, Wleh said to Gregory, “The event was a Martin Luther King celebration, not a comedy show. What you’re saying doesn’t pay respect to Dr. King, I think it’s horrible…you missed the point.”

Gregory, 81, responded to Wleh saying in part, “I was with him. He hugged me three weeks before he died and told me ‘They are going to kill me’… I don’t have to come here and tell you who King was or what King did, you can get that from a book.”

A veteran of the United States Army, Gregory began his comedic career in the 1950s performing at comedy clubs in Chicago. Impressed by his skill, Hugh Hefner, creator of the Playboy Empire, hired Gregory to work in his Chicago Playboy Club. This helped the young comedian gain exposure among integrated audiences.

In addition to a thriving comedic career, Gregory devoted much of his time to activism during the 1960s, working alongside Dr. King. As a result of his work with the Movement, Gregory was shot once, and jailed frequently.

He credits these experiences as helping shape his character. “It was the Movement that changed me,” said Gregory. “It made me look into reality.”

For Wleh, Gregory’s contributions to the Movement did not excuse his racy commentary. “It didn’t add up,” said Wleh. “I was looking at people’s reactions…we don’t want that here. You came to speak at a Martin Luther King event, why do you have to diss white people?”

According to Dr. M. Iyailu Moses, former Director of the African American Cultural Center, the clarity of Gregory’s words was contingent on the message that students anticipated. “What you had an opportunity to do, was hear from someone who was very, very actively involved in the Movement,” said Moses. “I think maybe people came thinking that he was going to talk about the Movement, and talk about King specifically…I think his point was more than telling us about King the man, but to talk more about what that whole Movement meant. The message is not let’s go back there and dwell in the past as much as it is using the tools of the past to negotiate the present and future.”

Art Anthony, Treasurer of Urban Affairs and Community Service, also thought that Gregory’s message was not lost upon those familiar with his style and approach. “If you came looking for someone who was going to sit down and read to you a sanitized script, you were coming to the wrong place,” said Anthony. “There is no one more pro-Black than this man right here, he loves Black people. If you perceived it to be disrespectful, you are wrong. Dick Gregory has the upmost respect for [Dr. King].”

Named as one of Comedy Central’s 100 Greatest Stand-Up Comedians of all time, Gregory ran for President of the United States in 1968. His candidacy came as a surprise not just to the Nation, but Gregory himself. “Had I won, I would have asked for a recount,” said Gregory.

Gregory, who thanks the Movement that there is now a Black man in the White House, says the fact that no one has ever mistaken him for President Obama, has dispelled his 81-year-belief, that white people think all Black people look alike.

Though it was this type of gall that left some members of Monday’s audience unimpressed and irate with Gregory, for Dr. Sheila Smith-McKoy, director of the AACC, it made him all the more endearing. “Dick Gregory utilized the same biting political commentary that catapulted him to fame as an activist and comedian,” said Smith-McKoy. “Having walked with King, having bled to call attention to injustice, Gregory continues to advocate for change using humor and challenging his audiences to see the lingering injustices in our country. I learned a great deal from both his speech and from the extreme responses of those who either loved or failed to understand his intention to challenge all of us to become socially and politically aware.”

Despite delivery of a commemoration that was saturated with satire and jest, Gregory ended his speech on a serious note. “I don’t have to hide behind King,” he said. “What I gave you was not no stuff all dressed up…King took on the mightiest country in the World and won.”