Comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory mixed social commentary and humor at a speech Monday night as part of MU’s Black History Month celebration.
“I never expected white folks to give us a whole month,” he said to a crowd of more than 150 people.
Gregory, a St. Louis native, has devoted much of his life campaigning for civil rights. As a comedian, he gained prominence for his use of racial humor. After achieving celebrity status, Gregory drew his inspiration from individuals such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and used his fame to spotlight the issues of the Civil Rights movement.
“This movement is the greatest thing that’s ever happened on the face of this planet,” Gregory said.
Gregory and other celebrities went to Mississippi during the movement. In Mississippi, they supported King’s efforts to empower blacks by registering voters and raising funds.
Gregory’s commentary was serious as well as humorous. As an African-American, he reminded the crowd of the days when schools were segregated.
“When I was in high school, I couldn’t come to this institution,” he said. “Who would have thought I’d be here speaking and receiving an honorary doctorate degree?”
Gregory received an honorary doctorate of humane studies from MU in May.
The Black Studies Department at MU sponsored Monday’s event. Julius Thompson, director of the Black Studies Program and chairman of the Black History Month Committee at MU, said the committee chose Gregory after looking at a number of possible keynote speakers.
“We thought Dick Gregory would be an interesting person, particularly to talk about historical relationships to black struggle with the contemporary situation,” Thompson said in an interview before the event.
Gregory’s background fit with this year’s Black History Month theme of the Niagara Movement and black protest.
The Niagara Movement was a symbolic event in which 29 black intellectual and professionals gathered near Niagara Falls. The meeting was organized by activists W.E.B. Dubois and William Monroe Trotter. Their intention was that African-Americans would take a more militant stance toward their struggles for social and political equality.
Thompson said this legacy has connections to the present.
“We see Black History Month as being an important theme that emphasizes better race relations, better human understanding and that seeks to promote a greater diversity at the University of Missouri-Columbia, in Boone County, in the city of Columbia, state of Missouri and nationally and internationally,” Thompson said.
In his speech, Gregory also emphasized the ongoing nature of the civil rights struggle.
“You young folks have a tough job,” he said. “We old folks have left you a big mess.”