While he was alive, Dick Gregory exchanged a million-dollar comedic career for decades of unrepentant social activism and advocacy for health and wellness among the Black community. After his death, people throughout the world celebrated the icon’s legacy as an urban prophet whose passion for all people never ceased.
Dick Gregory was a famous comedian who gave up the limelight to focus on social justice issues for Blacks in the United States. (Photo by Hamil Harris)
“It means so incredibly much to have all of you here today as we pay tribute to my father,” Christian Gregory, the activist’s son, told mourners at the service. “We thank him for a life of sacrifice . . . while we celebrate his life, we acknowledge all of the suffering, all of the pain, but then all of the glory.”
The funeral, held Sept. 16 at the City of Praise Family Ministries in Landover, Md., began with a musical tribute by the Morgan State University Choir. Other musical tributes included songs from India Arie, the City of Praise Choir, Sweet Honey and the Rock and concluded with Stevie Wonder singing his hit “I Will Love You Always.” The church also featured two large photos of Gregory by the front door and in the foyer.
“What an absolute pleasure it was to have a man who gave so much to live to be 84-years-old,” Christian said. “Very few of his friends are still here. We know the stories. The fact that he was here to cut up for so long we kind of understand it. Martin, Malcom, Medgar, if they all got to live to be 84 years old we can kind of imagine from Dick Gregory what those lives would have been like. We know many of their children are still here and we want to say from the Gregory family thank you for your sacrifice.”
Bishop Joel Peebles, pastor of City of Praise, welcomed people to a “celebration,” that was filled with more laughter than tears. The Rev. William Barber used his booming voice to talk about how Gregory is helping God write jokes.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), a native of Saint Louis, drew laughs when she spoke about trying to get into see Gregory to perform in his hometown and despite being a member of Congress, people were not going to let her cut the line.
The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, said, during the service, that even Malcolm X couldn’t out talk Gregory. “I love to talk but when Dick is around you better be prepared to listen. He always came with a suitcase of things because he sought the truth,” Farrakhan said.
In terms of faith, Farrakhan said that Gregory never joined a church because, “He was far beyond dogma and rituals,” and in terms of his life’s work, “He wasn’t looking for a purpose he was born with a purpose.”
Outside the Landover church people passed a line of food trucks, tee shirt vendors, and hundreds of members of the Nation of Islam posted in protection of Farrakhan.
Guest speakers included D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton; D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser; Martin Luther King III; Drs. Rosalind and Leonard Jeffries, founders of Kwanza; Rain Pryor, daughter of Richard Pryor; Reena Evers, daughter of Medgar Evers; civil rights activist the Rev. C.T. Vivian; and E. Faye Williams, president, National Congress of Black Women, among others. Master of Ceremonies the Rev. Mark Thompson, host of Sirius XM radio program “Make It Plain,” struggled to trim tributes from several guest speakers.
“So much more than a comedian,” said Myrlie Evers-Williams, who called Gregory a man who was a champion for “justice and equality.”
Ilasah Shabazz, daughter of Malcom X, said: “Let us never forget the indelible mark this man made in the world.”
Several stars attended the funeral, including Bill and Camille Cosby. Ayanna Gregory sang “Ballad for My Father” in honor of Gregory. The service was broadcast live on D.C. radio station WPFW-FM (89.3).
Though Gregory was a native of Saint Louis, his home, with his wife, Lillian, and the mother of his 10 children, was located in Plymouth, Mass.; D.C. was his second home, according to Bowser and Norton.
Actor Joe Morton performed excerpts from the off Broadway production “Turn Me Loose,” which was about Gregory. “What’s great is because of all of the things Dick said I wanted to say,” he told the AFRO. “He talks about us and the world, politics, and racism, things that mean something to me.”
On Sept. 17, Gregory’s hand crafted gold casket was paraded from the Howard Theatre along U Street to Ben’s Chili Bowl.