Op-ed: What Dick Gregory taught me in a chance conversation
8:00 AM, Aug 22, 2017
Brian Alexander is a Cincinnati native, a 1988 graduate of St. Xavier High School, and is now a professor of politics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va.
It's not often that you board a flight and walk away grateful that the person beside you talked the whole time.
On a flight to Chicago in 2013, I got seated next to a man who introduced himself as Dick Gregory. I didn't recognize him by sight, but I certainly knew the comedian-cum-activist by name and reputation, and I was thrilled at the chance to meet him.
Among the many great stories that filled the hours of our flight, one in particular spoke to me about individual courage and integrity. It was something like this.
Gregory was a struggling young, black comedian in Chicago in the late '50s, early '60s. Somehow, through an act of fortune, he landed a gig at the Playboy Club. A Time magazine reporter, there to report on someone else, became so impressed with Gregory's performance that he featured him instead.
As Gregory told me, a few days after the Time story, he got a call from a producer at the Jack Paar Show who wanted him to be on the show. (Back in the days of three-network television, Jack Paar was the gold standard for those in show business, with millions of nightly viewers.) The producer said, "I'm from the Jack Paar show and we'd like to have you on our program."
And Gregory told me that he said, "I'm not going to be on your program," and hung up.
So, a little later, the producer called back and said, "I'm sorry, Mr. Gregory, but this is not a prank. I'm from the Jack Paar Show, and we'd like you to be on our show." Again, Gregory goes, "I know it's not a prank. I'm not going to be on your show," and he hung up. (He has great story-telling cadence while he's telling all of this, including the gesture of putting the the receiver back on the phone.)
Finally, the next day he gets a call. It's Jack Paar himself. Paar explains that they are serious and would like to fly him to New York and have him do his comedy routine on the show.
Gregory said, "Mr. Paar, I'm not going to be on your show. Let me tell you why. Whenever you have a white comedian on, after their routine you invite them over to the sofa to have a conversation. But when you have a black comedian on you never invite them over to the sofa. They do their routine and then they're off the show. So, no. I'm not going to be on your program."
Think about this for a second.
Gregory is, at this point, relatively poor, a black man living in '60s Chicago, struggling to make it in show business. He gets invited to the Jack Paar Show, that time period's equivalent of Saturday Night Live.
And he says no. Because of what he thinks is right. To stand up for what he believes in. At the potential sacrifice of all the personal fame and success that could (and did) follow.
Gregory told me that there was a pause on the line and then Paar said, "I see your point, Mr. Gregory. If I invite you to the sofa after the routine will you be on my show?" Gregory told him yes, and in 1961 he became the first black comedian to sit for an interview on the Jack Paar Show.
To television-viewing America, it wouldn't have mattered if Dick Gregory never appeared on Jack Paar. The producers could easily find someone else. But for Gregory, it was everything.
And for the rest of us, too, this story is everything. It struck me, while Gregory was leaning over into my seat recounting this event, how minor acts of great personal courage can help change the world.
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