Remembering my mentor, Dick Gregory, on his birthday

BARBARA REYNOLDS | 10/23/2017, 7:28 a.m.


The celebration of the life of Dick Gregory on Sept. 16 in Landover, Maryland, was over seven hours of eclectic diversity, from a serenade by Native Americans to a musical tribute with Ayanna Gregg’s daughter and Stevie Wonder, and speakers from MSNBC’s Lawrence O’ Donnell to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, to the fiery Rep. Maxine Waters.

There were torrents of “hallelujahs” and especially “as-salaam alaikum” as Min. Louis Farrakhan began a profoundly uplifting eulogy.

It was fascinating to see how a man born in 1932, so far down in the cracks of society could rise so far up; jailed countless times in the fight for human rights, authoring 13 books, a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, movie roles, a celebrated humorist and global humanitarian.

Born in the slums of St. Louis, his mother, Lucille Gregory, had to put plastic on her feet to keep them from getting wet as she walked to work. At 10 years old, a White man knocked out two of his front teeth for touching a White woman as he shined her shoes. His family was chronically evicted for the inability to pay their rent – even at $18.

What kind of journalist would I have become if it had not been for Gregory becoming my mentor and coach for more than three decades as I tried to survive as a pioneering Black woman journalist in White newsrooms? I have pondered this thought since his death, but intently on his birthday, Oct. 12. He had an incredible impact on my career.

In 1985, he developed a low cost nutritional product to fight famine and took 50 truckloads of it to Ethiopia. I went with him and I saw hundreds dying from starvation in resettlement camps in the desert. I held in my hands 5-year-old children so emaciated that they looked half their ages and women so exhausted that they collapsed as they walked. The products he delivered saved many lives.

He was the one who pushed me to go out on a limb for unpopular people and causes, even if the limb broke off. He taught me not to discount conspiracies just because it is safer to believe a lie rather than an unpopular truth.

Of course, following the Gregory stylebook meant you wouldn’t have a job long. In some newsrooms the reward for not toeing the company line, disbelieving that White is always right and caring more for the masses at the bottom than the big shots at the top means a swift kick out the door.

It was not unusual for Gregory to entice me to venture off to distant lands or to stick my nose into events that sounded and looked correct but would turn out to be rotten to the core.

Gregory was often shunned and slammed as a “conspiracy nut.” In time, he would usually be proved right.

One day in 1996, he called me, “Barbara, you know they murdered Ron Brown.” Brown was the first Black U.S. Secretary of Commerce. On April 3, he died in a plane crash on a mountaintop in Croatia along with 34 others.