By Barrington M. Salmon
Thousands filled the City of Praise Church to honor the contributions of Dick Gregory. PHOTO: Roy Lewis/Trice Edney News Wire
(TriceEdneyWire.com) – Several thousand mourners packed into a Landover, Md. church listened as friends, family and admirers lionized comedian, social justice warrior, civil rights activist and provocateur Dick Gregory. The spirited, electric memorial service on Saturday, Sept. 18, turned out to be more celebration than funeral.
Gregory’s passing brought together a constellation of local, national and international celebrities and luminaries from the arts, entertainment, politics and sports as well as ordinary people, all whose lives Gregory touched over the course of his 84 years.
Among the descriptors used: Firestarter, agitator, freedom fighter, legend, peacemaker, genius, artist, teacher, guide.
“We experience the loss not of a comedian but the loss of one sent from above to be a guide, a teacher, a friend, a teacher, an activist, a giver, a sufferer, one of the most marvelous human beings I have had the privilege of meeting during my 84 years of life on this planet,” said Minister Louis Farrakhan, who gave the eulogy. “I want to thank Mother Lillian and the Gregory family for the great honor and privilege that you have given me to ask me to be the eulogist for a man that is so difficult to describe, But I’m going to try in a few words to say what I think and I believe about man who lie there but is not here.”
He continued, “I enjoyed every speaker, every song, every word … Everyone who spoke represented the matchless, exquisite diamond that Dick Gregory represented and as the light shined on that diamond in every direction a different color because he was a man who represented every color of the sun,” he said. “His mind was always on justice and on peace, on freedom and equity, not only for Nlack people, but all who were deprived.”
Speaking of Gregory’s dogged research, he said Gregory would bring a suitcase with materials and newspapers giving facts and figures, things he heard and sought the truth about.
“Dick Gregory had us laughing but he was not a comedian. Even his jokes were filled with wisdom. He was so far beyond dogma and doctrine and rituals of religion. I loved to hear Dick talk about the real God, the Universal God because he had grown and outgrown the negativity of denominationalism and the sectarianism of religion. He wanted us to grow into where he was.”
Farrakhan had been proceeded by a parade of stars of sorts bring reflections about Gregory from every walk of life.
“I’m so pleased that you organized a real celebration where you’re not ending quickly and trying to shut people up. I’m going to take as long as I want,” said U. S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) to peals of laughter and applause. “I have talked to Dick for hours. We would talk – no, he would talk – about things going on in the world. He brought me to this time and place in my life.”
For more than six hours, in a service “Celebrating the Life of a Legend,” people regaled attendees spread over the City of Praise Family Ministries with stories about Richard Claxton Gregory. The speakers also included Stevie Wonder, Bill and Camille Cosby, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, members of the American Indian Movement, The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II and the Hon. Louis Farrakhan.
“I praise him who has brought us all together,” said Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of slain Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers and a close friend of Gregory’s. “I give thanks to Dick Gregory for this. I recommend that we love each other, recommend that we hold the memories and hopefully rededicate ourselves to the ideals that Dick Gregory believed in.”
Evers-Williams’ husband, Medgar Evers, the NAACP’s first Field Secretary in Mississippi, was shot and killed in an assassination in his driveway in 1963. She said the work of civil rights is clearly not finished.
“Seeing the children of the leaders, I saw them speak the truth of their parents, speak the truth of their generation and speak the truth of what America should be…Let us not forget who we are and remember that each of us has a responsibility to keep on doing the job.”
Interspersed with the speakers were musical performances by India Irie, Ayanna Gregory, Sweet Honey on the Rock, the Morgan State University Choir, Farafina Kan, and ‘Scandal’ star Joe Morton reprising a portion of his one-man biographical play on Gregory, “Turn Me Loose,” among others.
One extraordinary moment brought together several children of slain Civil Rights activists and Rain Pryor, daughter of comedian Richard Pryor. Renee Evers-Everette, Martin Luther King, III, and llyasah Shabazz, the third daughter of Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz extolled Gregory.
“Baba was part of my Pryor life of laughter and that special attention he gave you,” said Pryor. “He said that truths were soul food and a map to live by. He told me to always choose my words wisely. Today, as we honor our newest Ancestor, we are reminded not to morph, not to imitate, but to speak the highest truth. We have to keep them lifted in our actions as we become the change they sought.”
Evers-Everette said she initially refused strenuously when asked by Ayanna Gregory to speak but, “There’s no way I could not be here,” she said. “My father and Dick Gregory were brothers of the spirit and the hearts … They (her father and other slain Civil Rights activists) spilled the blood of truth for our freedoms. The words, wisdom and spirit they powered out in us was given to the world. The time given may have been small but it was enormous. They made the most impact on our minds and hearts.”
Shabazz said Gregory fought for people trapped on the periphery of economics and justice.
“He challenged the social climate and challenged a superpower that has been systematically and historically unjust to certain populations,” she said. “I’m honored to be here today for my parents and Ancestors. The Ancestors are lining up to welcome Baba in anticipation of a progress report on the status of life down here.”
“When it came time to say who took Malcolm’s life he rose to the occasion. He clarified Martin Luther King Jr’s death and raised his voice for those slain by bullies and bigots,” Shabazz explained. “And when this new generation reminded the world that Black Lives Matter, he stood up with them and spoke truth to power.”
In 1961, Dick Gregory’s big break came when he was asked to fill in for another comedian at Chicago’s Playboy Club. What was supposed to be a one-night gig lasted two months and led to an appearance on the Tonight Show and a profile in Time Magazine. Fifty-dollar-a-night gigs became $5,000 a night appearances. Gregory waded into Civil Rights leading and joining marches and often getting arrested for his involvement in demonstrations for justice and equality, for Native American rights, DC statehood and an assortment of other causes. Several people said he gave up millions as he assumed the mantle of activism.
Master of Ceremonies the Rev. Mark Thompson, host of Sirius XM radio’s ‘Make It Plain’ recalled that commitment. “He helped us lead the statehood movement in 1993,” Thompson recalled. “We were the original Tea Party – no taxation without representation. We went to jail every week for the entire summer.”
Waters, who has gained notoriety as an outspoken and acerbic critic of President Donald Trump, promised that she would continue to be “this dishonorable person’s” worst nightmare.
Waters concluded, “I’ve decided I don’t want to be safe. I’m not looking for people to like me. It’s time for us to walk the walk. If you cared about him, loved him, stop being so weak. It’s time to stop skinning and grinning. It’s time for us to have the courage to do what we need to do, especially at this hour.”