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Comedy - Dick Gregory: 'You're looking at the genius'

Social critic, activist, and writer shares stories ahead of ATL performance

Since the heyday of "Saturday Night Live," comedy has seemed fixated on finding the next great comic. But the goal has pretty solidly been to find the next Jim Belushi or Eddie Murphy and then later Jerry Seinfeld. Forget about finding the next great political comedic genius, especially if he happens to be black. This reality makes Dick Gregory, who is as much a political activist as he is a pioneering comic, all the more rare.

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"I remember when I was entertaining, a black comic couldn't work a white nightclub. Think about that," he says. "You could sing, you could dance, but you couldn't stand flat-footed and talk because white folks would hear how smart you are."

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Age has only sharpened the 82-year-old Gregory's tongue. More witty and satirical than a lot of the goofy fare Hollywood especially embraces, Gregory commands attention on and off stage. Racism is his No. 1 topic and he's done more than his part to fight it.

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"When I came there," he says of his first visit to Atlanta during the Civil Rights era. "I came there to lead marches against a restaurant chain that wouldn't let black folks in."

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That was in December 1963. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized a sit-in at a Toddle House location on Peachtree. Toddle House was a restaurant chain prominent in the South that did not serve black people. John Lewis, one of SNCC's founders, was arrested December 22. Gregory was arrested December 24.

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But, the fight didn't end there.

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"I called my man in New York to see if the Dobbs House which then owned Toddle House was on the New York Stock Exchange and it was. So I said 'buy me $10,000 worth of stock and fly it down here. And I got out of jail and then the next day, I went to the restaurant again and the owner came up and asked me to leave, told me the law. I said, 'I have stock in the company.' And I showed him my stock. That was my first time using that stunt of using money to fight legalized racial discrimination."

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Gregory's power - he is clear - was bestowed upon him by Hugh Hefner, the infamous Playboy magnate who saw him at the Herman Roberts, a black Chicago nightclub where Count Basie, Sarah Vaughn and others performed in front of a large amount of white patrons. "Had he not been at this Negro nightclub, you wouldn't be talking to me," he insists. "Dick Gregory wouldn't have existed." Later he asks, "How many other geniuses that we didn't get to hear because black folks couldn't get the play?"

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Even with his fortunate break of playing white clubs, Gregory never forgot his black fan base or shied away from his activism. "When I hit, all my contracts said that if I come to work your nightclub and you advertise in a white paper," he schools. "And there's a black paper within a hundred mile radius of you, you have to advertise in them or you're violating my contract."

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It's local, domestic, and world events that keeps Gregory, who turns 83 in October, sharp today. "I read over a thousand dollars-worth of newspapers every week," he reveals. "Money is not power, information is power."

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And in his element, he has full dominion. "When I get up on the stage, you better not open your mouth," he warns, not at all ashamed to let his status be known. "When I walk upon that stage you're looking at the genius."



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