Dick Gregory understood the political power of comedy
Instead, he followed his plan. He led by making fun of himself: "Just my luck. I bought a suit with two pair of pants today -- and burnt a hole in the jacket!"
Then he broadened out to the elephant in the room: "Wouldn't it be a hell of a thing if all this (gesturing at his face) was burnt cork and you people were being tolerant for nothing?"
Heckling quickly gave way to laughter, applause, encores and a regular gig at the Playboy Clubs, which led to a Time magazine profile, "The Tonight Show" and a heroic sort of national stardom. He was the black comedian who could have white audiences laugh at the absurdities of racism.
But show biz was not enough. In 1964 he joined the civil rights movement. He traded nightclubs for college campuses. He became a healthy food apostle and a political activist.
In 1967, at the height of his popularity, he ran a write-in campaign for mayor of Chicago against incumbent Richard J. Daley and in 1968 for president of the United States. He lost, of course, but he provided a model for the later African-Americans who would win.
In recent decades, Gregory's obsessions with conspiracy theories made him something of a joke, even among his friends. Yet here, too, he had a following among fellow conspiracists. Conspiracy fanatic Alex Jones' InfoWar website eulogized Gregory as a "Jedi-level infowarrior."
Yet I could not fault Gregory for believing in conspiracies. According to papers obtained by a Chicago Tribune reporter in 1978 under the Freedom of Information Act, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had ordered the bureau's Chicago office to secretly "neutralize" the comedian-activist in 1968, perhaps by informing Mafia bosses about some impolite remarks Gregory had made about them.
"Look, if the FBI was going to contact La Cosa Nostra, they had to know who was in La Cosa Nostra," a stunned Gregory told the Tribune after he was told about the memo. "And if the FBI knew who they were, why weren't they arrested?"
Why, indeed? As an old saying goes, even paranoids have enemies -- who might be even more paranoid.
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