Dick Gregory — Speaking Truth To Power In 1971 Interview


Dick Gregory. Photo-Gregory’s Facebook page

Gem from the archives: The following are excerpts from an interview with Dick Gregory by Les Payne, published in January 1971 in Uptight, a magazine Payne briefly edited and published long before he went on to Newsday to become a Pulitzer-prize winning reporter and editor. Gregory, who died on August 19 at age 84 was a life-long fighter for socio-political and economic justice. Gregory used humor as a sedative to lure those who often tremble when they hear truth spoken to power but the term “comedian” does Gregory a disservice. As the interview with Payne reveals throughout his life Gregory always stood strong against: police brutality; infiltration of drugs into African American communities; relevant education for African American communities; support for authentic Black heroes such as the Black Panthers; and, the need to create and empower Black institutions and businesses. The issues Gregory discussed 46 years ago, and some of his solutions are even more relevant and pertinent today than they were back in the day.

Les Payne: You recently completed a 40-day fast to dramatize the drug crisis in this country. With whom were you trying to communicate and toward what end were you attempting to get them to move?

Dick Gregory: I went on the 40-day fast last summer to dramatize to the younger kids and older folks the serious problem with law enforcement in the area of drug control. For some reason we tend to put the blame for dope on the user, instead of the pusher and the smuggler. The younger kids must realize that the same system which makes it very easy for them to get heroin and other drugs at age 18, makes voting at that age very difficult. So, if drugs were good, they would be as hard to get at age 18 as is the right to vote. At some point we have to ask ourselves how can a nine-year-old kid find a heroin pusher and the FBI can’t. I can’t bring myself to believe that a nine-year-old kid is that much smarter than the FBI.

Payne: Do you believe that the FBI or the Federal Government or any of its agencies sanction the distribution of drugs, or do they just neglect to find the people who are responsible?

Gregory: Let’s put it this way, a kilo of heroin that comes into this country comes from Turkey where the it sells for $16 a kilo. By the time it hits the American street corner, it sells for $10 million a kilo. So if we look at the cat on the corner we know he’s not getting the $10 million. We look at the cat directly behind the street pusher, we know he’s not getting it. If we keep going all the way up, it will reach higher than the FBI and the police. So I feel that until the government officials and politicians and law enforcement officers stop turning their backs, the problem will grow worse.

Payne: So you think that the entire system…

Gregory: The interesting thing is that the same system that allows dope to be smuggled in, does not allow the espionage people to smuggle anything else in. Let’s assume that nuclear bombs were grown in fields in Turkey — let’s assume the espionage boys would gather up those nuclear bombs, take them to Paris where they take the heroin and make them into workable bombs, smuggle them into Canada, then into America to blow up the country. I don’t think they could do it. You dig it. Neither do I believe that these same dumb, sneaking, slimy, degenerate thugs can smuggle enough dope to turn a whole generation of youth on and that the government can’t do anything about it. And the people in the country put the blame on the kids, we’re not dealing with whiskey–during prohibition you could make whiskey in your bathtub- You can’t make no heroin in your bathtub. So I think we should start putting the right force and the right pressures on the police department and the federal government. If the police can’t find the heroin man, then let’s make the dope user the police, because he can find him every time he needs more stuff. If my cop, I’m paying to be a cop, can’t do it, then I don’t have any qualms in hiring them cats that use dope to be the police. They seem to be the only people who know how to find the man.

Payne: Why do you believe that a user is driven to use drugs, be he 16-year-old kid or 32-year-old man?

Gregory: Well, I think he is driven by the various conditions in the country, various attitudes in this sick degenerate nation where we play a manhood game — where we play up our heroes as being cowboys with the quick gun; and the various kids think they can get manhood by doing various things in a system where they watch adults drink booze 24-hours a day. Anything is an improvement over whiskey. We don’t want to admit it; there is more crime committed in America under the influence of alcohol than under drugs; there are more auto accidents and more people slaughtered on American highways in a twelve-month period under alcohol than all the left-wing revolutionary people could [have] killed on the face of this earth in the next twenty-five years. For some reason, if the great white man say that alcohol is legal, we assume that it doesn’t affect the body. If he said dope was legal in the morning, every body’ll be standing in line to get theirs. This white man is not that great to decide for nature what is good for the body. The passing of a law doesn’t make what use to be bad, good or what use to be good, bad. There are many conditions that make people swing to drugs.

Payne: How do these conditions-

Gregory: If you were in an accident and were unconscious and carried to the hospital, before they do anything with you, they would give you a shot of dope. Where many black folks and Puerto Ricans and Mexicans and young kids live, their heads and minds are in a state of wreck 24-hours a day. They are saying that I don’t need a doctor to give me drugs, I can go out and get my own. This government has to stop drugs. I think they are afraid. If they stop the drugs from coming in, then they have to deal with the problems the system creates. If I couldn’t get the drugs then I would have to deal with the problem — It’s nothing new– alcohol is a narcotic. I don’t know why all these people are hung up on narcotics and not aware that alcohol is a narcotic. They are putting down narcotics and don’t know that the same booze that they drink is a narcotic. We have seven million alcoholics in America that directly affect the lives of 85 million people and for some reason nobody seems to be uptight over it. Look around at the conditions, if the conditions don’t make you drunk then nothing will. The conditions that poor folks and young folks go through in this country — if that don’t take you in cloud nine then nothing will. So we have to understand that whiskey and dope and all drugs are doing nothing but putting those folks to sleep. As long as it put them to sleep the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Payne: How do you view what has been happening in this country’s educational institutions, particularly blacks’ attacks on these organizations as being irrelevant to their needs?

Gregory: A new black leadership is emerging in the black community. Young black kids are saying ‘Ok, we are locked up in this ghetto here; let’s make our schools here relevant to our needs. Let’s talk about teaching black things. Don’t keep teaching me that the holidays I get from school will be for one of those freaks that white folks stay our of school for.”

Payne: Do you see a shift in the schools’ power structure?

Gregory: More and more black folks are not coming with our hats in our hands, begging the white master, the same people who killed King and Malcolm, asking them to make their days national holidays. We’ve got to take that. We’ve got to say beautiful baby, you got me locked in the black ghetto, we’re going to close down the streets on my man’s birthday. He’ll say “How many birthdays do you want?” We want Malcolm’s, we want King, we want Medger Evers, and Jabbo Jones. “Who’s that?” We won’t tell you but we’ll close down our schools anyway. That’s my cousin. Since you won’t give us the holidays we’re asking for, then we’ll take them. We might decide to take a holiday for a month. It might be eleven months to our year from here on in. We’re going to take a month of festivities and we don’t want anybody running any business in that month. We’re going to check some records and if the cat wasn’t right as far as black folks are concern[ed], then we don’t want to celebrate his birthday. We’ll keep school open on his holiday. I don’t want to celebrate George Washington’s birthday, what did he do in observance to us? Now, a Klansman got a right to celebrate the Ku Klux Klan day, but don’t ask me to stay away from work on his day. Don’t tell me to take out from school because George Washington died. Don’t tell me to fly my flag half [mast] because Wallace died. So this is what this black leadership is talking about. They are talking about making things relevant to black people.

Payne: Do you feel that the Black Panthers were anointed by black people in the sense that white people used to ordain black leaders? And where do you see the philosophy and groups like the Panthers leading blacks as a people?

Gregory: As a result of the Panthers being on the scene, there were no riots in the black ghettos last year. This is so because the police is tipping lighter. Before, when there was no one talking about what the police were doing they were they were having a field day. Today, there are fewer black folks being killed by police in the ghettos than ever before in the history of the country. There are the same black cats; same cops; the only difference is that the Black Panthers are on the scene. I’ve got to give them the credit for it. The Panthers ordained themselves. They did more than just engage in rhetoric. They said watch the cop on the corner. They said we’ll feed your hungry children before they go to school. We’ve heard groups standing on the corner wolfing for years, but none of them came in and brought their program. We can talk about whitey for the next twenty years, but that won’t feed my hungry kids. Talk won’t get that rat out of our baby’s crib. It won’t get that cop off of my back. So now the Panthers are paying the price of waking us up.

Payne: Do you think that things have gotten better since your days in Chicago?

Gregory: Things couldn’t have gotten any worse. if I have cancer and it’s known that I have it, it’s better than for it not to be known. So today, we know about the racial problems in America. And it’s now up to us to change the conditions. White officials will stop misusing Black Panthers when black people stop misusing Black Panthers.

Payne: What sort of posture is necessary to bring this about?

Gregory: The police know that they can’t come into our neighborhood in the middle [of] the night and shoot up black folks automobiles; they know we won’t stand for it. Yet we allow them to come in and gun down the Black Panthers and get away with it. The day we put the same amount of respect on black human [beings] that we place on property, then that bullshit will stop. You may notice that the police don’t gun down the pimps, and the whores. He doesn’t gun down the nigger drug pushers. So the people in the black community who act as a detriment, the cops walk by them as if they are heroes. When our true heroes come into the black community the cops gun them down. Our true heroes like the Panthers don’t come to sell my sister’s ass, not to pimp and hustle my lady not to push dope to my kids; they come in to uplift us from a moral, ethical and economic standpoint. We can’t let these cops continue to deal this way with our heroes.

Payne: What is the black college’s economic condition?

Gregory: I am tired of black colleges having to depend on white folks for money. They are in financial trouble and we need them more today than ever before. If black people would, through their churches, donate their nickels, pennies and dimes to black colleges, America will see a tremendous difference in their schools. We’ve got black colleges in Alabama that have got to go to George Wallace for funds, and some times they have to go to the federal government for funding. Black businessmen, pimps, whores and everybody else should contribute to the black colleges so that they can be freed from domination from white organization[s]. If blacks control our colleges then there won’t be any problems with bringing a Rap Brown or a Stokely Carmichael, or a Muhammad Ali to give the commencement address. For these black men are more ethical, and more qualified to give a commencement address, than say [Richard] Dick Nixon or [Spiro] Agnew.

Payne: You have been able to reach both the white college students and the blacks on the corner. It seems to me you have been able to communicate to both. How were you able to do this?

Gregory: Honesty. All men can do it — there are certain basic degenerate things they have to give up, it’s the easiest thing in the world to reach people. You can hate the ground niggers walk on, but how are you going to deal with the cat that says two and two are four. Because you think he’s a nigger, are you going to make it three or five! How are you going to deal with a man who says the stars are in the sky, the sun comes out in the daytime and we see the moon better at night and water is wet and salt is salty. How are you going to deal with that.
Consequently, in America today, we have tried to use logic in place of honesty and tried to use wisdom or reasoning in place of integrity. And no one respects it at all. Now for the first time, man is beginning to tell the truth. We have a whole set of beautiful white kids, today simply because the young black kids have dealt with them from a real standpoint. When you don’t like something, you tell him you don’t like it. We use to scratch our heads and say it’s all right and grin when we didn’t want to grin. The beautiful thing now, is when a white dude sees a black kid laughing at America, he’s laughing because he’s enjoying it, not because he’s supposed to laugh.

Payne: At one point you stopped being a nightclub comedian and entered the field as an activist. Have you returned to being a comedian or are you working in both fields?

Gregory: I have more time available thanks to the black militant groups and the Black Panthers and the new young leadership. You see for years the establishment and the white press decided who our leaders [were]. Now I don’t say this in a derogatory term Roy Wilkins, Martin Luther Kings and Whitney Youngs anyone of these men, who white folks happen to pick, could qualify to be president of the United States and run this country and solve most of its problems. But they decided who the leaders were and they kept them to a bare minimum. The young black kids don’t let the press decide who our leaders are anymore. Young, fresh leadership was able to come up on the local level.

Consequently my phone doesn’t ring like it use to. I flew up to Maine, not too long ago. A white woman met me at the airport and said “I’m trying to organize the white welfare mothers in Maine and I just wanted to get some advice from you.” Well, five years ago, I would have had to take her phone number and called her back long distance, try to philosophize and come up with an answer to her problem. Today, I refer her to Dr. George Wiley who was [organized] one of the strongest welfare rights organizations in the history of man. I said “Lady, he can tell you more in five minutes than I could in five years.” You see, with all this type of leadership, someone calling me from New York saying “I’m hungry and I’ve got kids that are hungry, what can I do?” Well, I say, “Give me your number and I’ll call you back.” Now, all I say is, “Lady, get to a Black Panther and you have got your dinner.” And consequently I have more time today, because the young kids are moving into this leadership position.”  


Updated with link to a tribute to Les Payne’s following his death.


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