Dick Gregory never lost his “tell-it-like-it-is” streak
  • SCLC’s 1968 Poor People’s Campaign button
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    1968 Dick Gregory for President campaign button

    It was almost hidden. The bright colors of the red yellow and black button were the thing that helped it to stand out from the field of red, white and blue “Willkie and McNary” buttons on the tray in the glass case at the auction house.

    Willkie seemed to winning the race for attention, but Gregory wasn’t fooling around. I spotted his name on the illuminous button in the mass, and immediately asked the auction-house staffer for a look.

    “Write in. Dick Gregory for President. Peace and Freedom,” it boldly stated.

    Dick Gregory for president

    Up-close view of the Dick Gregory for President campaign button.

    Gregory’s campaign came more than 25 years after Wendell Willkie ran as the Republican candidate for president in 1940 and McNary, the Senate Minority Leader, as his running mate. He lost to Franklin D. Roosevelt in the election.

    Gregory ran as a write-in candidate in 1968 for the Freedom and Peace Party, pulling in more than 47,000 votes. (Computers that fed election results to newspapers and TV networks on Election Night had a glitch that reported Gregory winning 9 million votes in Pennsylvania. The number were found to be wrong.)

    He was in a race along with Alabama Gov. George Wallace, a write-in for the American Independent Party who was an outspoken segregationist (and garnered 9 million votes in southern states). In the end, Republican Richard Nixon won the election over his Democratic opponent Hubert H. Humphrey.

    Dick Gregory for president

    A full view of the tray of campaign buttons featuring Dick Gregory, Willkie and McNary, and Happy Birthday – Love One Another.

    Some interesting tidbits about Gregory’s candidacy:

    1. For publicity, his campaign printed fake dollar bills – or “One Vote” notes – with his face on them. He chose the note, he said, because “I wanted some campaign material that if you threw it down, somebody would pick it up.”

    The bills were so real-looking that they could were used in money-changing machines, and according to the federal officials, were being used as payment to defraud merchants. The Secret Service seized the bills. Gregory was not charged, and joked that the money could not be the real thing because “everyone knows a black man will never be on a U.S. bill.” (The female Harriett Tubman will change that).

    You can still get them on the web, including one selling for $100 on Amazon and on eBay for $2.99 and $9.95.

    2. One campaign ad told of what Gregory would do as president (which sounds on the surface like a Trump ad):

    Headline at top of ad:

    “This country is upside down, Dick Gregory can set it right.” (His setting it right related to America’s relationship with African Americans: no jobs, little food, bad housing, no freedom.)

    Headline at bottom of ad:

    “Dick Gregory wants to turn this country right side up again.” (end to racism and Vietnam War, with money used to solve social problems)

    3. He wrote a paperback book “Write Me In,” which told of his plans to improve America by taking power away from what he considered corrupt politicians.

    Dick Gregory for president

    The Dick Gregory for President “One Vote” note. Photo from pbagalleries.com.

    Gregory was a well-known stand-up comic and a civil rights activist during the 1960s, speaking at election rallies for SNCC and other such groups, marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, AL, and befriending civil rights activist Medgar Evers. He also spoke out against the war in Vietnam.

    He was a critic of the Warren Commission’s report on the assassination of President Kennedy, an outspoken critic of South African apartheid, a supporter of the feminist movement, a participant in research on the assassination of King and an unofficial negotiator for the release of U.S. hostages in Tehran in 1980. Since the 1980s, he has been an advocate for healthy living.

    Most of us first knew Gregory as the activist comic who told painful truths about everything pertaining to how this country was run and how it treated its African American citizens. His comedy was a brand of racial commentary that made you think.

    Dick Gregory for president

    Dick Gregory in a 1970 photo, from dickgregory.com.

    I saw him for the first time in the 1970s when he appeared at Ohio State University where I was a grad student in journalism. He was oh-so-funny with a very sharp edge. He was the comedian who pricked your consciousness even as you laughed at his jokes, and his message stayed with you once the performance was over. He found all the material he needed by reading the newspapers.

    Like this performance at the all-white Playboy Club in Chicago in 1961 before an audience of white executives from the South (he was one of the first black comedians to play before all-white audiences):

    “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I understand there are a good many Southerners in the room tonight. I know the South very well. I spent twenty years there one night.”

    “Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant and this white waitress came up to me and said, ‘We don’t serve colored people here.’ I said, ‘That’s all right. I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.’”

    I actually met and interviewed him for a story in the now-defunct Emerge magazine more than 35 years later. One of his greatest achievements, he mentioned, was to not only perform on “Tonight Starring Jack Paar” in the 1960s but to sit on the studio couch afterward to chat with the host. No other black performer had ever done that, and Gregory refused to appear on the show unless he was given the opportunity to do so.

    Dick Gregory for president

    Dick Gregory for President campaign ad and poster.

     

    Gregory’s run for president was not his first stab at public office. His ran for mayor of Chicago (where he had settled to become a professional comedian) against incumbent Richard J. Daley in 1967, but lost after receiving 22,000 write-in votes.

    Gregory, 84, is still out there speaking and telling truths at comedy clubs and in interviews. Lately, he’s been talking about the outcome of the most recent election, and what the victor and his policies will mean for the country. Here’s his take on Donald Trump before and after the election.

    I wasn’t around when the group of buttons sold, so I’m not sure how much they sold for. But you can get one of these Gregory buttons online for $10 or one with blue lettering on a white background for $25. You can find them both on eBay for $6 to $10 each.

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