In a March 2011 profile of African American comedian Dick Gregory written for GQ magazine, journalist Robert Chalmers mused, “it’s fortunate that his life has been played out so publicly, because Dick Gregory is a character it would be impossible to render credible in fiction.” It is an apt a description as any for Gregory, a skinny boy born into a poor Black family in St. Louis, Missouri, who became a stand-out college athlete, army veteran, comedian, social commentator, civil rights campaigner, committed humanist, long-time vegan activist, conspiracy theorist, health food entrepreneur, and one-time candidate for the presidency of the United States.
Gregory’s entry into the 1968 presidential campaign was treated as little more than an entertaining sideshow by political commentators and mainstream media outlets. However, the comedian also garnered an enthusiastic following among college students and working-class African Americans, and his highly public criticisms of the two-party system peaked the interest of the FBI. Gregory’s flair for the dramatic belied a well-reasoned and unashamedly radical critique of the US political system, systemic white racism, the excesses of American capitalism, and the war in Vietnam. As an important early case study in Black celebrity activism, Gregory’s presidential run can help shed light on “how both celebrity and blackness are defined and consumed in our society and particular historical moments,” and on the fascinating links between Black celebrities, radical activism, and the New Left, which emerged during the 1960s.
Gregory got his first taste for comedy performing in military talent shows after being drafted into the armed forces from a track scholarship at Southern Illinois University during the mid-1950s. Gregory returned to university after being discharged but abandoned his studies to move to Chicago in an attempt to break into showbusiness. After several years of emceeing and performing at Black nightclubs, Gregory was hired as a stand-in for prominent white comic Irwin Corey at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club. Before long, he was headlining comedy clubs across the country and regularly appearing on late-night television. By 1962, Stephen Kercher contends that Gregory had cemented a position as “one of the most highly visible satirists and black entertainers in America.”
Yet even as Gregory reached the top of his chosen profession, he became increasingly ambivalent about comedy’s role as an effective weapon against racial oppression. In 1962 Gregory was approached by NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers to appear at a voter registration rally in Jackson, Mississippi, and he became increasingly involved in the movement at the cost of his professional career. Emilie Raymond, whose insightful 2015 monograph Stars For Freedom: Hollywood, Black Celebrities, and the Civil Rights Movement details the comedian’s commitment to Black activism at the grassroots, contends that “Gregory, more than any other celebrity in the 1960s, risked arrest and served jail time for civil rights causes.” In his movement autobiography Lay Bare The Heart, CORE National Director James Farmer recalls that Gregory was one of the first people he called for support after hearing about the murder of three CORE activists—James Cheney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman—during the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer. The following year Gregory would be shot attempting to face down a police blockade during the Watts Riots in Los Angeles.
Closer to home, Gregory became heavily involved in protests against Chicago school segregation, which focused on public schools superintendent Benjamin Willis and the city’s formidable mayor Richard Daley. After being arrested for organizing a series of protests outside Daley’s home, Gregory vowed to run against the incumbent in the 1967 mayoral race. As an independent, Gregory staged a write-in campaign designed to highlight the systematic corruption of the Democratic machine. His efforts to translate his popularity into political influence garnered significant attention, not least from the FBI, who had been keeping tabs on the comedian since at least the early 1960s. James Anderson, a leading investigative journalist for the Washington Post, would go on to report that Gregory’s FBI files could be measured “by the pound,” and Gregory’s mayoral campaign was closely monitored due to his “vitriolic comments concerning the bureau and the government.”1 Daley was re-elected by a landslide, but Gregory was unperturbed and announced an even more ambitious project—his candidacy for the presidency of the United States.
Gregory’s campaign was based squarely around his opposition to the Vietnam War, but was more broadly an attempt to critique the limitations of the two-party system and the deeply rooted links between corruption, political power, and American capitalism. The announcement was greeted with hostility by Carl Shipley, the chairman of the Republican Central Committee, who denounced Gregory as a “racist black power candidate” and his candidacy as “un-American in concept.” Like many career politicians, Shipley connected notions of patriotism and American national identity to the validity of the two-party system, contending that “any normal American…should be able to find a political home in one of our two great national parties.”2 Yet his remarks ignored growing public dissatisfaction with the two-party system on both sides of the political aisle, something which would be most clearly expressed through the support garnered by third-party candidate George Wallace during the campaign. For African Americans in particular, frustrations at the failures of both Republican and Democratic politicians to address massive white resistance to desegregation and other ongoing civil rights concerns produced a desire to search for political solutions outside of the two major political parties.
Gregory embraced his position as a “truth-teller,” consistently defiant and using crass humor and sensational public statements to shock as much as to inform, in a way not too far removed from the strategies adopted by Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign and maintained following his election. He also released a manifesto of sorts, in the shape of the 1968 book Write Me In!. Released shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968, the book was dedicated to “all the Democrats and Republicans in this country, who have created the atmosphere which makes [this] book necessary!” From the outset, Gregory attacked “America’s obsession with violence,” noting that Lyndon Baines Johnson “was unable to attend the funeral because he had to meet his generals and talk about killing people in Vietnam.”
Gregory did establish connections with minor political parties, most notably the New Party (connected with New Left) and the Peace and Freedom Party, which grew out of the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s. While dismissed out of hand as a serious candidate, Gregory’s knack for self-promotion led to national headlines, such as when he filed a court injunction against President Johnson for excluding him from National Security briefings. Arguably Gregory’s most successful public stunt came through the production of dollar-bill notes which replaced the image of George Washington with the comedian. In an article for Paper Money, Loren Gatch has suggested that more than one million copies of the note were produced and put into circulation—a number that is impossible to confirm, although certainly enough bills entered circulation to attract the attention of the secret service and FBI. Gregory was able to dodge charges of counterfeiting, in part because he argued that “everyone knows a black man will never be on a US bill.”
The comedian’s anti-establishment position won wide support on college campuses and the backing of multiple student newspapers. In an op-ed published shortly before the election, the paper at Rutgers University implored students to “opt out of the system by voting for Dick Gregory, who is running a symbolic campaign against the very power structure that ignores us.” Ivy league periodicals such as the Harvard Crimson, the Dartmouth, and the Daily Pennsylvanian also urged their readers to vote for Gregory or another minor-party candidate.3 It also led to an escalation of the FBI’s campaign against him, with the Bureau citing the comedian’s “extremely violent statements of a revolutionary nature” as well as his “sympathy for [and association with] known communists, black extremists, and revolutionary activists” as evidence of his threat to the established political and racial order.4 In an extraordinary memorandum delivered to the FBI’s Chicago office, Hoover contended that “Gregory has travelled all over the country preaching black nationalist extremism, hatred, and violence, Chicago should review Gregory’s file and his current activities to develop counterintelligence designed to neutralize him…sophisticated, completely untraceable means of neutralizing Gregory should be developed.”
Such rhetoric was indicative of the deeply antagonistic stance taken towards Black activists by the FBI, which used individual campaigns of intimidation alongside more substantive projects such as COINTELPRO to silence and, in some cases, eliminate perceived threats. In the case of Gregory specifically, it spoke to deeply-rooted fears over his influence as a political commentator and civil rights activist. In the aftermath of King’s assassination, the FBI and other government agencies became consumed with the question of who would take King’s place as the figurehead of the movement, with Gregory being one of a pool of potential candidates that ranged from activists such as Stokely Carmichael to athletes and entertainers such as Muhammad Ali and James Brown. While never likely to attract substantial support, Gregory’s campaign represented a more deeply rooted dissatisfaction with the two-party political system within Black America. Following the election of Richard Nixon, Gregory staged a swearing in ceremony as “president-in-exile” and declared that “whenever the [current] occupant of the White House fails to respond to the just demands of human need, the independent army will bring their concerns to the Black House.”5
- Jack Anderson, “Black Activists Are FBI Targets,” Washington Post, 16 May 1972; Gregory FBI File 1, 90. ↩
- Paul Richard, “GOP, Democrats Rap Gregory,” Washington Post, 21 July 1967. ↩
- Gregory Backed at Rutgers, New York Times, 4 November 1968; “4 of 8 Ivy League Papers Back Humphrey Reluctantly,” New York Times, 3 November 1968. ↩
- FBI Gregory 1, 131. ↩
- “Gregory Inaugurated As President-in-Exile”, Jet, 20 March 1969. ↩