If you’ve never seen him speak in person or in the media, you might not be prepared for what’s about to transpire. You might be laughing one minute, upset the next, but in the end, you’re going to think about what he said. His stream of consciousness — a healthy mix of ironic humor, wit, provocative storytelling, politics and unfiltered passion — leaves little doubt about the amazing life this 78-year-old comedian, author, vegetarian, cancer survivor and longtime civil and social rights activist has lived.
“We want to make this a more humane society, but when we say ‘humane society’ people think you’re talking about the animals,” he quipped on Wednesday night during a lecture presented by the Torero Program Board at the University of San Diego’s Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice Theatre.
Gregory’s comedy career inspired the likes of Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor, his belief in the civil rights movement led him to march with Dr. Martin Luther King. He counts Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and pop star Michael Jackson among his friends. He was active in civil rights events that shaped the 1960s and remain vital lessons for all about the power that people have to make things better.
“One person with courage is a majority,” Gregory said.
His own activism started as a high school student in St. Louis where he organized a march to protest segregated schools. Later, inspired by King and organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Gregory used his fame to bring attention to issues of segregation and disfranchisement in the South. He’s known for his multiple fasts — many of them well in excess of a month — to protest issues involving political issues such as the Vietnam War, world hunger and drug abuse. His desire to speak up led him to run unsuccessfully for mayor of Chicago in 1966 and President of the United States in 1968. The latter garnered him 1.5 million votes and likely contributed to Richard Nixon’s win over Hubert Humphrey.
Appearing at USD as part of its celebration of Black History Month, Gregory spoke on a variety of life topics — race, sex, gender, politics — and he mixed in his thoughts on the current events in the Middle East.
“You look at the mess in the Middle East where people don’t have equal rights and they’re willing to die to change this,” he said. “If you look at it really close, many Egyptians make less than $2 a day, but you don’t hear them talking about better wages. They’re talking about dignity and freedom and they’re willing to die for it.”
He also offered advice aimed primarily at young people, but really, it’s a statement that applies to all.
“I say to the young people that they must have love, kindness and happiness in their hearts,” he said. “Think of it like this: It’s like having a well that provides water to everyone within a 100-mile radius. If you poison that water, people will die. Just like how blood goes to every spot in your body, if you are filled with hatred, meanness and bitterness and live with fear in your heart, you’re poisoning every part of your body.”
— Ryan T. Blystone