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December 8, 1966, Vol. XII, No. 8
Dick Gregory on His Way To Entertain the Jailed
By Joe Flaherty
Dick Gregory sat under the pale spot at Art D’Lugoff’s Village Gate, his hands fluttering around his head like black and orange butterflies. “So I told LBJ — I didn’t but you when you split.” Gregory was splitting for North Vietnam to entertain U.S. troops who are prisoners of war, evidently without any Great Blessing from the Great Society.
Gregory’s plane left Monday for London and then on to North Vietnam. The trip was arranged by Bertrand Russell and the North Vietnamese in London. When Ho Chi Minh heard that an American comedian wanted to come to North Vietnam he probably thought it was just another envoy from our State Department.
Gregory said his trip has no political overtones. “I’m just going to entertain the prisoners.” When asked why he didn’t entertain the troops at the front line he replied, “I don’t entertain killers on either side. These prisoners are without a government, they are paying their debt for the war like North Vietnam captors are paying theirs. I wouldn’t entertain anyone who is engaged in killing his fellow man.”
Gregory reached into his suit jacket and pulled out a single cigarette. “Look, I entertain in jails all over the country, these guys were murderers, rapists, and bank robbers, but now they are paying back. I don’t tell jokes at bank robber’s conventions.”
The attractive thing about Gregory’s performance on stage is that he manages to use scathing material without bullying his audience. Unlike so many hippy entertainers, he has a genuine fondness for his audience. After admonishing them on racial hangups he gently soothes them by saying “We all have our troubles, baby.” He ends his act by saying, “May nature be good to you.”
In private conversation he talks of man’s insignificance. “All the soldiers in the world couldn’t stop the water bag from breaking when a woman is about to give birth.” He seems to be looking for answers when he asks, “Why a Christmas truce? Is Christmas more important than men dying? If that’s our hangup then we should change the calendar and make every day Christmas.”
The trip is costing Gregory $5000 of his own money. On his return he intends to cut off his nightclub tour for about two years. “I don’t want any woman coming to a club and paying a $40 tab just to ask me if I saw her captive son.” He said he wouldn’t bring any messages or return any. He felt this was the work of the Red Cross.
On his return Gregory will continue his mayoralty campaign in Chicago. “I have 400,000 votes in my hip pocket and that is more than enough to destroy the Daley machine. I would consider that a personal victory.”
When asked for his definition of black power Gregory angered. “The Negro people have been using two filthy words for decades — ‘mother-fucker’ — yet white people never minded. Now we put two clean words together — ‘black power’ — even the Pope could use them — and the white community is screaming. If anyone wants to know what black power means let him pick up a dictionary and look up the word ‘black’ and the word ‘power’ — then you get it, baby.”
The prisoners won’t be seeing the usual Gregory act loaded with social satire. Gregory is undecided as to what kind of material he will use. He said an effort is being made to obtain the tapes of the Notre Dame-Michigan State game and of Cassius Clay’s last three title defenses.
Wen asked if the State Department has put any pressure on him, Gregory replied “Not yet, but I will probably have 16 CIA agents and two workers from SNCC trailing me. Those guys from SNCC want to make sure I don’t go Uncle Tom over there.” A woman obviously concerned for his safety asked him if he wasn’t terrified about visiting North Vietnam. Gregory broke into a slow smile, “Baby, I’m going to be where Ho is and that has to be the safest place in that country.”
Actually, Gregory is not doing something new. Johnson and Rusk have turned Southeast Asia into the Keith-Orpheum circuit with their Peace-Za-Poppin tours from the Vatican to Vietnam. McNamara has been giving us his Professor Irwin Corey descriptions of the war for years. The only danger Gregory faces in North Vietnam is strictly professional. Traveling as one of America’s foremost clowns, his predecessors have left him a series of tough acts to follow.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]