Cambrian: Opinion

Dick Gregory used humor to defuse tensions in ’65 protest

Dick Gregory speaks at the D.C. Full Democracy Freedom Rally and March in Washington, D.C., on October 15, 2011. Gregory, a comedian, activist and author, died Aug. 19.
Dick Gregory speaks at the D.C. Full Democracy Freedom Rally and March in Washington, D.C., on October 15, 2011. Gregory, a comedian, activist and author, died Aug. 19. TNS

I just heard on the radio that Dick Gregory died. He was one of my heroes.

On June 12, 1965, I took part in a civil rights demonstration in Chicago, protesting the inequitable distribution of the city’s public education funds. Many of the participants sat down in the street at the intersection of Michigan and Balboa, at the edge of the famous “Loop.” Four-hundred and thirty-seven of us were arrested and transported in squadrols (police vans) to the Chicago City House of Correction.

As I remember it, only a small number of those arrested were female. As my increasingly fallible memory recalls, the men were placed in a drunk tank. A lot of us! It was a very warm, humid June afternoon. As I remember it, the authorities turned off the overhead fan and, thus, any semblance of air circulation in the very close quarters. They also turned off the single, small water fountain,

It didn’t take long for tempers to start to fray in that steamy, overcrowded room. Despite the common purpose of the occasion, tensions arose between some of the black and some of the white occupants of the small cell. It could have become nasty.

That’s when Dick Gregory went into action. He was among those who had been arrested. At the time, he was doing his act at the Purple Onion nightclub in San Francisco, if failing memory is to be trusted. There in the drunk tank, he went into his act, and the tension rapidly drained out of the room. I will never forget it.

Some of those who had been arrested agreed to decline bail and to spend some time in jail. The next week, those of us who made that choice were allowed to watch and listen (but not to take part in) the daily meetings of the committee planning the demonstrations. After his nightclub act in San Francisco each night, Gregory caught a red-eye flight back to Chicago to be part of that planning.

Dick Gregory was one of my heroes. His cool, calm and courageous comic relief may well have prevented a serious incident in the drunk tank that night. And his willingness to sacrifice his time, energy and financial resources to commute between San Francisco and Chicago (in 1965!) to work with the local leadership made a powerful impression on me. Ave frater, ave atque vale! Hail, brother, hail and farewell (from the Latin poet, Catullus, later used by Alfred Lord Tennyson).

Don Dallmann earned his doctorate in divinity from the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago in 1991. He has lived in Cambria since 2003.

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