“We are here to pay tribute to a hometown hero’s incredible journey from a pioneering comedian who successfully crossed over to white audiences, to a civil rights activist who sacrificed a career of comedy for a lifetime of service for the oppressed and voiceless,” said Sylvester Brown Jr.
Brown was the keynote speaker for the first of the two-part tribute to Dick Gregory Sunday at Washington University’s Graham Chapel.
The second program will take place November 30.
He joined Holden Thorp, Washington University’s provost and executive vice chancellor for Academic Affairs, Gregory’s brother Ron and U.S. Rep Wm. Lacy Clay in sharing remarks about the comedy pioneer-turned-civil rights legend.
Gregory passed away in August at the age of 84.
“Everything he did in life, he challenged us to think about how things could be better,” Thorp said. “He came back from military service and returned to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He left soon afterwards. He said, ‘I’m leaving because you didn’t want me to study. You wanted me to run.’”
His brother Ron Gregory wanted to make the foundation of his brother’s role as an activist clear to the audience.
“Although Dick was away from St. Louis for quite a while, everything he did later in life has its roots right here in St. Louis,” Ron said. “There are a lot of people that thought Dick’s activism started after he became an internationally known entertainer. That’s far from the truth.”
Ron shared stories of his older brother working to integrate sports and to improve the conditions for African American students within the St. Louis Public Schools in the early 1950s. The activism led Dick Gregory to spearhead the integration of high school track and field in Missouri– and he became the first African American half-mile, mile and cross-country state champion.
Clay spoke of Gregory the political pioneer and his groundbreaking career in comedy.
“He was the first African American to run for president of the United States,” Clay said. “He paved the way for Jesse Jackson, Doug Wilder and eventually Barack Obama. Everyone knows his comedic genius was unparalleled.
“While my dad, Congressman Bill Clay was breaking the back of segregated employment in St. Louis, Dick Gregory was tearing down walls of segregation in the entertainment industry.”
Brown framed his remarks around an exchange he had with Dick Gregory when the two crossed paths in Ferguson during the height of the unrest.
Brown wanted to tell him about his Sweet Potato Project initiative, but Dick Gregory had no time for that. He wanted Brown to understand what was happening in Ferguson and why.
“Whenever you have explosions like this, I go,” Dick Gregory told Brown. “If I came here and my head was bleeding, you know something’s wrong, right? When you see people rioting, you know something’s wrong. It’s like hearing a baby cry and you go tell him to ‘shut up.’”
He recited Dick Gregory’s words from more than 50 years before.
“‘We’re not saying, Let’s go downtown and take over City Hall. We’re not saying, Let’s stand on rooftops and throw bricks at the white folks,’” Brown said, quoting Dick Gregory. “‘I’m a black man, and you made me sit down in a black school and take a test on the United States Constitution, a constitution that hasn’t worked for anyone but you ...We’re saying, We want what you said belongs to us.’”
“So, yeah, Dick hurt my feelings a little bit that day,” Brown said. “But after really listening to his words, I had to put those feelings aside. I was reminded of the true essence of Dick Gregory’s words and their relevance to our modern times.”
His words and actions rang true when he was a student at Sumner and SIUC. They spoke to the times of the Civil Rights Movement. They resonated in Ferguson and to this very day.
“His activism started when he was a high school student here in St. Louis – and it spanned 67 years,” Ron Gregory said. “Please understand this champion of human rights did not die on August 19, 2017. If Dick was here, he would tell you, it’s only just begun.”
Part two of the tribute will take place at 5 p.m. on Thursday, November 30 at Crowder Courtyard and Anheuser-Bush Hall. The program will feature a screening of the documentary “Unsung.”