Comedian and activist Dick Gregory died last week — just months before the 50th anniversary of a speech he gave at St. Mary’s University that rocked the city. Or, more accurately, a hack version of the speech he gave rocked the city.
Dick Gregory grew up in St. Louis, not far from Tina Turner and Chuck Berry. A skinny little kid, he said he honed his comedic skills after learning that it was easier to make bullies laugh than to whoop them.
He broke onto the national scene in the early 1960s after being called in to substitute at the Chicago Playboy Club one night. The audience was a group of Southern businessmen, some of whom heckled him. He shot back with such wit that legend has it his performance provoked a standing ovation.
By the time he came to speak at St. Mary’s in 1968, Gregory was known as both a provocative comedian and a social activist, a friend of Martin Luther King and the more radical Stokely Carmichael. His reputation was such that, according to an article in the St. Mary’s student newspaper, his appearance was originally scheduled for March but was moved up to January. Why? “Because some University officials felt his appearance close to the opening of HemisFair could be detrimental to the community.”
Gregory began his lecture with a long series of jokes, many of them self-deprecating. But he also knew how to land a verbal punch, a punch richly wrapped in some uncomfortable truths.
The coverage in the next day’s San Antonio Express left off the wrapping. It said Gregory referred “to the American flag as ‘nothing but a damn rag,’” and called the U.S. history book a “dirty old trampy history book.”
Here’s some of the wrapping. Referring to a new flag-burning law, Gregory said: “What is an American flag? It ain’t nothing but a damn rag regardless of how patriotic you are, like all flags all over the world ain’t nothing but rags ... the day we can respect one another because we human — that’s the day a rag gonna be sacred, man.”
And, he said, the U.S. history book starts out beautiful. “Now here’s a cat, that was over in London, in Great Britain, who wanted to get away from the shackles that was bonding him. He wanted to find a free place where he could plant his crop, where he could worship his own God. Ain’t that groovy?”
But the second page is different, said Gregory. “The same cat that struck out to find his free land, to pray to his God, stole me on the way over .... Not only did he seize us on the way over, dig this, you think it’s not filthy: He came over here and discovered a country that was already occupied! How you do that?! That’s like me and my ole lady walk outta here tonight, and you and your ole lady sitting outside in your brand new car, and my ole lady say,’ I sure would like that car so we can pray in it.’ I say, ‘Okay, let’s discover it.’”
The newspaper article provoked a storm. Angry letters to the editor played for two weeks. The university was flooded with outraged phone calls. One man ordered a young secretary to “tell the person responsible for this speech that I hope that his house is the first to burn and his children are in it.”
The university president called a press conference and issued an apologetic statement.
“I was greatly shocked by both the content and language of his presentation. His vilification of our American system, our President and our flag I found particularly objectionable. Mr. Gregory abused his privilege as a guest of this university and I deeply resent his breach of good taste and judgement.”
A student petition taken up to thank the president for his support of academic freedom and a notable speaker series was withdrawn.
Other speakers that year included Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, conservative writer William F. Buckley, community organizer Saul Alinsky and author Erskine Caldwell.
The next year, it seems, the most famous campus speaker was a former Miss America.