Dick Gregory headlines Black History Month

Civil+rights+activist%2C+comedian+and+Black+History+Month+keynote+speaker%2C+Dick+Gregory%2C+gives+a+speech+on+Feb.+15+in+the+Wool+Ballrooms.++Mark+Campos%2F+Senior+Staff+Photographer
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Dick Gregory headlines Black History Month

Civil rights activist, comedian and Black History Month keynote speaker, Dick Gregory, gives a speech on Feb. 15 in the Wool Ballrooms.  Mark Campos/ Senior Staff Photographer

Civil rights activist, comedian and Black History Month keynote speaker, Dick Gregory, gives a speech on Feb. 15 in the Wool Ballrooms. Mark Campos/ Senior Staff Photographer

Civil rights activist, comedian and Black History Month keynote speaker, Dick Gregory, gives a speech on Feb. 15 in the Wool Ballrooms. Mark Campos/ Senior Staff Photographer

Civil rights activist, comedian and Black History Month keynote speaker, Dick Gregory, gives a speech on Feb. 15 in the Wool Ballrooms. Mark Campos/ Senior Staff Photographer

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Keynote speaker’s passion inspires audience to laughter, reflection

Seventy-nine-year-old Dick Gregory walked up to the podium in the Wool Ballrooms in the Busch Student Center and began by thanking who he called “the invisible folks”—the people who toil diligently behind the scenes to make nights like Feb. 17 possible. Gregory was not referring to the agent who booked his appearance, nor was he referring to those in attendance.

Civil rights activist, comedian and Black History Month keynote speaker, Dick Gregory, gives a speech on Feb. 15 in the Wool Ballrooms. Mark Campos/ Senior Staff Photographer

For Gregory, the invisible folks are those who work hard with little fanfare and sometimes even less pay: the people who set up chairs in the Wool Ballrooms before the show and will clean up afterwards.

Less than five minutes later,  Dick Gregory had the crowd doubled-over laughing after he said that the only non-historically African American college to offer him an honorary doctorate degree was Penn State.

“I’ve got 45 honorary degrees from black colleges. I was happy about those 45, but I just wanted one white college, just to put up on my wall,” Gregory said. “I wrote to 50 white colleges over a 30 year period until two days ago. I get a letter from Penn State. They said not only will we give you the honorary degree, but we’ll bring it to you!”

Gregory, a St. Louis native, knows a bit about being the “invisible folk” and a whole lot about comedy.

Gregory promoted civil rights as early as his teen years, leading a march against school segregation while attending Sumner High School. In 1954, Gregory was conscripted into the U.S. Army, where his comedy skills began to blossom.

He won multiple talent shows throughout his Army stint.

Upon his discharge, he moved to Chicago and honed his skills alongside the likes of Bill Cosby.

Gregory was a prominent civil rights activist during the 1950s and 1960s, and was a staunch opponent of the Vietnam War.

His sense of social justice and determination were unflappable; on multiple occasions, he fasted for more than a month in protest.

His popularity as an activist, comedian and author led him to run for Mayor of Chicago in 1967 and the U.S. Presidency as a write in candidate, losing both.

Gregory vacillated between commentary on social issues and humor seamlessly. He tackled topics ranging from the state of American democracy to his (oftentimes hilarious) youthful years.

“If our democracy is so good, why are we ramming it down people’s throats? Anything that’s good, you don’t need to ram down people’s throats,” Gregory said, “It’ll be nice going down.”

Gregory also discussed his relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King and expressed his appreciation and admiration of him by repeatedly stating during the speech, “Thank you Dr. King.”

He also stressed the impact of the civil rights movement, not only on African Americans, but the entire world.

“The movement liberated the entire world, not just African Americans,” Gregory said. “The first female university president, the first Polish pope—all of it is possible because of the civil rights movement.”

Gregory also clearly enumerated the difference between racism and prejudice, with the former being control and the latter dislike and judgment.

“All ethnicities faced prejudice when first coming to America: The Irish, the Italians, Jews, Asians and Blacks, and women, too, during the Salem Witch trials,” Gregory said. “It’s this generation’s job to change the notions of prejudice.”

Gregory encouraged the audience to remember their individuality and significance and to “leave fear here; throw it away.”

“We were made by a universal God, not a bank. We’re all God’s children, but we don’t act like it,” Gregory said. “We beat 500 million other sperms to get here. I’d say we’re pretty special.”

Upon parting, Gregory left a personal message for the college-aged crowd: What you do for a living is not as important as how you live.

“You can go to school if you want to learn how to make a living,” Gregory said. “But if you don’t learn how to live, the universe will take you.”