Last week I told how comedian/activist Dick Gregory enflamed San Antonio with a 1968 speech at St. Mary’s University. This week I want to tell you how, exactly three months later, he helped keep another city from burning.
On Thursday, April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. Washington D.C. was the first to erupt. President Lyndon Johnson called in more than 13,000 troops to quell rioting. Marines with machine guns guarded the Capitol building.
On Friday, 36 major fires were set in Chicago. President Johnson sent 5,000 troops to join 6,700 Illinois National Guardsmen. By that Sunday, 11 people had died, 500 had been injured, and 2,150 had been arrested.
Thousands of federal troops were also sent to Baltimore, where 6 people died, 700 were injured, 4,500 arrested and more than 1,000 fires were set.
These were the worst, but more than a hundred other American cities experienced various levels of unrest.
By coincidence, the day after King’s murder a regional conference on the role of black students was scheduled at the University of Texas at El Paso, and the Texas Observer had assigned me to cover it.
Dick Gregory spoke late Saturday afternoon. He himself was a pacifist. But in San Antonio he had jabbed Martin Luther King, saying, “Martin tells black people to be non-violent, but I don’t hear him telling white folks to be non-violent.”
In El Paso he told the students, “I believe in non-violence, but I believe in the Constitution too. Now this summer when the television news program shows black people burning down your cities, I want you to get your parents and sit them down in front of the TV. Then I want you to get a copy of the Declaration of Independence and sneak up behind them and start reading as loud as you can.
“‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that man is endowed with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that when, over a long period of time, a government becomes destructive of these rights, it is the DUTY of the people to alter or abolish that government.”
Recall that this was a man, like other blacks of his generation, whose government had for generations been destructive of freedom, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. He had been restricted to segregated, inferior schools in his native St. Louis. He had been barred from restaurants there and while on the road as a performer. His people had been lynched without reprisals, denied access to new neighborhoods after serving in World War II, treated in segregated and inferior hospitals, could not even drink out of “white” water fountains. They had been told in countless ways, by society and by their government, that all men were not created equal, that they were inferior and not worthy of the rights and privileges enjoyed by white Americans.
So there was particular amusement in his voice when he told of being called by the mayor of St. Louis two nights earlier in the wake of King’s assassination. Addressing the comedian as “Mr. Gregory,” the white mayor of a city with a history of slavery and racism that stretched from before the Dred Scott decision to Ferguson, asked for advice on what he could do to keep peace.
Gregory told the mayor he would call him back after making a few phone calls. He said he called a number of clergymen and other black leaders, then called the mayor back. His advice: Go on television and announce that the city will be hiring buses to take people to King’s funeral.
That night, a few hours after hearing Dick Gregory speak, I called my mother in St. Louis. I asked how the city was faring.
“It seems pretty peaceful,” she said. “The mayor went on TV and announced the city is busing colored people down to King’s funeral.”