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.
“C’mon Greg, don’t tell me that, I am in enough trouble on my job.” I knew news executives generally hated conspiracies. Brown had been threatening to expose others in high places involved in illegal campaign funding rather than taking the fall himself. But who would murder all those people to get at one man?
I met with Gregory, who showed me some disturbing reports. First the New York Times had reported that Brown’s body was so mangled it would be virtually impossible to identify. Yet, Gregory had a picture that clearly showed Brown’s body in tact at the crash site.
Time magazine had reported there had been a terrible storm that contributed to the crash, but later reports showed only drizzling rain. Several investigators at Dover Delaware where Brown’s body was carried for examination reported a circular hole in his skull that some forensic experts said appeared to be from a gunshot; but the X-rays, which could have cleared up the matter, turned up missing. In addition the manager of the airport where the plane crashed reportedly committed “suicide” before investigators could conduct an interview.
Whether or not Brown was murdered was never proven and few if any news groups tried to get to the bottom of how he died. Gregory and Waters planted yellow crime scene tape banners around the Institute of Pathology to highlight the case and Gregory was arrested for refusing to leave the scene. I was also able to write several columns about Brown for USA TODAY and several schools were named after Brown. And for many that appears to be enough.
But when the establishment would not budge to find the truth behind the assassination of leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, Gregory wrote books to shame the system for their closed minds.
In Callus On My Soul, he told how “the brothers who shot Malcolm X were paid by the CIA,” who he said had rented the Audubon Ballroom where Malcolm X was murdered a week before.
In Code Name Zorro: The Murder of Martin Luther King Jr., with Mark Lane, he wrote how on April 4, 1968, King was murdered in a conspiracy between the Memphis Police Department, the Mafia and the CIA, which had a Black man planted on the balcony of the Memphis Lorraine Motel at the time of the shooting.
The information Gregory unearthed hardly ever received major news coverage because the facts ran counter to the acceptable narratives of the news operations. In addition to those of us who insisted upon using Gregory’s truths were viewed as untrustworthy and soon fell out of favor.
The Iran-Contra story, with my determination to ensure Greg received his just due, was the last straw that helped separate me from my job as a national reporter at a major Chicago newspaper.
In 1979, 66 hostages were taken by Iranian revolutionaries who were threatening to kill them. Greg went to Iran to pray and fast for the hostages’ release. The State Department and newsrooms were feverishly looking hard for an American who could talk to the Ayatollah. When the Ayatollah learned that Gregory was in Iran and had fasted for peace during his four-month stay, losing 51 pounds, he invited him to meet with him. Gregory said the Ayatollah thanked him for coming and also prayed that the hostage crisis would end peacefully.
Gregory called me from Tehran giving me a first-hand report of this significant development. The bombing and shootings in the background sounded so real, I literally ducked under my desk. The Chicago Tribune ran the story for only one edition but pulled it in later ones.
I was terribly upset by this because I knew if a White man had met with the Ayatollah in the midst of such a crisis it would have been major news. Eventually I wrote of his heroic venture in a cover story for Playboy magazine. Shortly after that, I was forced to part company with the newspaper.
Clearly my understanding of the workings of certain institutions and government came from my coach Gregory. It has left me well equipped to monitor and write about the Trump presidency and those to come-what is seen and unseen.
Thank you, Mr. Gregory.
Dr. Barbara Reynolds, founder and president of Reynolds News Service, is an award-winning journalist, author, and minister known for her controversial biography of Jesse Jackson.