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Comedy is only a part of legendary activist Dick Gregory

Corey Manning
Comedy is only a part of legendary activist Dick Gregory
Comedian and activist Dick Gregory will be in Boston this weekend performing at the Wilbur Theatre. (Photo: courtsey of the Wilbur Theatre)

What do Dick Gregory and President Barack Obama have in common? They both ran for president of the United States of America.

Although Gregory’s run in the 1968 presidential election was unsuccessful, he won 47,097 votes as a write-in candidate.

Recognized by Comedy Central as one of the 100 greatest comedians of all time, he was one of the first black comedians to successfully “cross-over” and appeal to black and mainstream audiences. Gregory was one of the key figures during the civil rights movement, and he protested near CIA headquarters in response to reports that the federal spy agency played a part in the crack epidemic. His autobiography, “Nigger” was published in 1964 and has sold more than 10 million copies.

Born in St. Lois, Mo., Gregory plans to celebrate his 78th birthday on Oct 12.  

The Banner recently spoke with Gregory before his Oct. 10 performance at the Wilbur Theatre.

This not your first time performing in Boston.

Oh no. For years, it was one of my regular stops, at “The Sugar Shack.” You don’t know nothing bout that. That was before you were even born.

What was “The Sugar Shack?”

That was a night club, where all the top acts came to. But then I got out of show business for a while to concentrate on lectures and writing books. I’ve been back in the night clubs [performing stand-up comedy] now for about eight years.

What has it been like, getting back on stage as a stand-up comedian?

It’s been fun. You know … when you get to the point where I am in comedy, you just walk out on stage and start talking. Play to the audience. Or talk about what was in the news today.

Would you consider yourself “a comedian and an activist” or “an activist and a comedian?”

I’m all of it. [Laughs] I mean … when I go on the stage to be funny, I be funny. When I walk to change something, I don’t go out to be funny. If I walk out on the stage and nobody laughs, and every social issue that I had, they solve it, then I win as an activist, but I’m defeated as a comic. But when I walk out and march, and I’m willing to put my life on the line, I’m not going out there to be funny. So they’re separate.

When I walk out on stage, I’m a father; I’m a husband, but I don’t go out there under that capacity. I’m up there as a comic; as a humorist.

Did you ever think in your lifetime, that you would see a black President of the United States of America?

Well first … I’ll be 80 in two years. What I’ve known is that we’ve always had black presidents’… qualifications. Fredrick Douglas was smarter than Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was horrified that he couldn’t bring him into his [presidential] Cabinet.

The reasons that women haven’t been president, or blacks haven’t been president, is not because we didn’t qualify. It’s [because this has been] a white, racist, insane nation.

And so when you sit and look at a black man become president, that wasn’t what the civil rights movement was about.

You see when we was out there in the movement … going to jail, being shot at, murdered … We didn’t go out there to put a black man in the White House. That’s an insult. We went out there to change the conditions where every black person, every woman, whether they were educated or not, would have the basic luxuries under the Constitution.

Cause ain’t nothing in the Constitution that says you can be president. But you do have certain freedoms.

Now back to your question, was I surprised? No. Because when you have five movies, in a five-year period, showing a black man as president of the United States, and they weren’t comedies … [Laughs]. You understand what I’m saying?

[Laughing] I hear you, I hear you.

When you have the number one TV show, “24,” where the black man is president … and [in the TV show] he gets assassinated by the secretary of state. So Obama better keep his eye on [U.S. Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton [Laughs]. But seriously, who would ever believe that with all the craziness and racism that went on in Boston, that a black man would be governor of an all white state, basically. This is how all that has changed. It’s amazing that this country has made the progress [that it has made].

Will coming to perform in Boston give you a chance to bring all you have to the stage?

When I first hit in comedy, there was no Internet; there was no cable. So everybody was locked into CBS, NBC and ABC. You heard the news in the morning. You heard the news in the evening. [Laughs] So now, you got stations that got news 24 hours a day.

For instance, right now while we’re talking, if a plane crashes in Budapest, in the next 10 minutes those bodies will be in your living room. And so the world has gotten smaller. Growing up in St. Lois, we had black [movie theaters] and white [theaters]. We had black restaurants and white restaurants. So I didn’t see no white folks, except going to [see them] in the movies.  It wasn’t until I got to a white college, that I realized that there were some ugly white folks. I get to college, and I call my mother and said, “Mom, I know you not gonna believe this, [laughing] but I’m sitting in class next to an ugly, dumb white boy.” She says, “Son, I told you not to go down there and start that drinking.”

 When I finally convinced my mother that I was sitting next to an ugly, dumb white boy, you know what she told me?

What’s that?

 She said, “When you come home for Thanksgiving, see if you can get his autograph.” [Laughs]

What are some of the things you will be talking about during your performance at the Wilbur Theatre?

Oh, I’ll be talking about everything, you know. Michael Vick. How he didn’t know how white folks felt about dogs. That’s why he went to jail.

Listen, the white folks that I live around … all around the world, rich white folk … they hire a nanny to take care of and change their baby’s diaper. But they walk their own dog, and pick up their dog’s poop.

Dick Gregory will be performing at the Wilbur Theatre on Sunday, Oct. 10 at 4 p.m.