Dick Gregory was an outright hoot. The comedian and activist, who died Saturday at age 84, couldn’t have been conjured up by any author, though Chester Himes or Langston Hughes might have come close if they had tried. The age of vaudeville would have loved him.
It was in the summer of 2000 when I first met Gregory, having come to Washington from Boston to write about him. Many thought he was dying. He was down to 130 pounds. He had been diagnosed with lymphoma. When I entered the house where he was staying, it suddenly seemed as if I was meeting one of those people you imagine you’d never meet, someone who belonged to newsreel footage mostly. But there he stood, quite bony, eyes sparkling. The Abe Lincoln beard looked a little unkempt. You couldn’t help but feel sad for him. He was famous, and infamous, and dying.
He had given me an address, and told me to meet him there at 4:30 — “in the morning.” I thought the comedian was joking. He was not. He also told me to bring a pair of sneakers.
The next morning I found myself inside a house not far from Rock Creek Park. Gregory came bounding down the stairs. “Hey, baby.” That’s how he talked, like a Motown soul singer. He was crashing at this house. Through the years, people had liked putting him up. After all, he was Dick Gregory, the raconteur of the civil rights movement, the interpreter of modern-day American politics and a one-time presidential candidate. So he slept on sofas, in sleeping bags, on floors. On this particular visit, he explained to me, somebody in Marion Barry’s camp was putting him up. Before we got out the door, he was talking about radiation in cellphones and the danger of it. I was rubbing sleep from my damn eyes.
A driver dropped us off at Rock Creek Park. The morning darkness worried me a bit. Hmm, muggers? “Dick Gregory!” Some fool had been out running at this ungodly hour. “Hey, baby,” Gregory responded. “How you doin’? Okay now. Okay.” It was that kind of soulful clipped patter common to black folk.
We kept moving. I wondered if the running had become a recent activity for him. He explained that he had been running since high school. He had been a cross-country runner. “The great thing about running the long distance,” he said, “is you run at your integrity. Running made me forget I was poor.”
“Oh my God, it’s Dick Gregory.”
“How y’all doin’?”
Before the sun came up in Rock Creek Park, he had me laughing out loud. There were a good many stories about his peripatetic life. Funny stories about white people, black people, southern sheriffs and the CIA, whose agents he described as “spooks.”
He talked about the scholarship he received to attend Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, from which he did not graduate. He talked about comedy clubs in New York City, other clubs in the Midwest, that kept food on the table. He couldn’t remember if he went to his father’s funeral; it was a strained relationship.
We talked about the civil rights movement, and how he had gotten involved. He said it was because of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, the civil rights workers who were murdered in Mississippi in 1964. I told him I had gone to Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio, where the three men — along with other civil rights volunteers — had trained before taking off for Mississippi. Heck yes, he confided, he was scared of that state. He’d get all spastic up in the face of the sheriffs. They thought something was wrong with him, mentally. “That night I was there, in Mississippi, talking to Sheriff [Lawrence] Rainey, putting my finger in his face, saying, ‘You know you did it. And we’re going to get you!’”
His political career was, well, interesting. He ran for mayor of Chicago against the big bad wolves of the Daley machine. He didn’t stand a chance, was crushed and decided he needed to set his goals higher. When he launched his run for the White House, he got fan mail — though there were also letters suggesting he check himself into Bellevue, a mental hospital. To boost his presidential ambitions, he printed fake American currency with his picture on it. Agents from the. Treasury Department didn’t think that was funny at all, and arrested him. The politically-inspired shenanigans of the official government — wiretapping civil rights leaders, for instance — had sparked Gregory’s mind so much he became, as the years rolled by, a champion conspiracy theorist. “I woke up with power,” he told me with a straight face, referring to the election in which Richard Nixon won in a landslide.
The stories kept coming once his jog through Rock Creek Park had ended. He once drove a Rolls-Royce. That was when the money from the comedy gigs and his trenchant autobiography, “Nigger,” was very good. Then the money wasn’t so good and the repo man came knocking on the door. He moved his family to a farm in Plymouth, Mass., in the early 1970s. Money woes continued.
But then in the ‘90s, he found new respect, a diet plan bonanza, more speaking engagements and chroniclers of the civil rights movement giving him new respect for the bravery he had shown.
For the past few years, I’d run into Gregory in my Northwest D.C. neighborhood. He’d pull me into a restaurant and start whispering. “Can you believe what’s happening to Obama? He’s not really running the government.” It would be rude to break away quickly, so I’d sit and listen. “Just watch what’s gonna happen in the election: They gonna put that fool in the White House.” I told him I doubted it.
It was sometime last spring when I had my last conversation with Gregory. I hadn’t seen him since the election.
“What did I tell you?” he said.
“About what?” I said.
He was whispering again. “Trump. I told you. It was all in the cards. The FBI, the CIA.”
I couldn’t help but to hug him before leaving his side. “Take care, baby,” he said, walking away, a bunch of newspapers and magazines in the crook of his arm.
Wil Haygood, a former Post reporter, is the Patrick Henry Writing Fellow at the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College.