“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.” – Dick Gregory
“When I was a kid, I said to my father one afternoon, ‘Daddy, will you take me to the zoo?’ He answered, ‘If the zoo wants you, let them come and get you.” – Jerry Lewis
from 1967, Buffalo Springfield
w/ For What It’s Worth
COMEDIC ACTIVISTS JERRY LEWIS & DICK GREGORY,
KEPT US ALL IN CHECK
written & edited by Kendall F. Person
Some people, we know why they stay with us all our lives. Connected through blood or by way of the many villages, that we have been a part of, make it easy enough to connect those dots. Some people we remember, because of the enormity of the destruction or a new face of evil they brought. The deeds of Charles Manson, Timothy McVeigh, Jeffrey Dahmer and Jim Jones, for example, have made it impossible to shake them from our consciousness. although there is no affinity between us. But some people, that stay with us we cannot quite figure out. Not that we ever asked ourselves the question, until death do us part.
Three On A Couch remains my all time favorite Jerry Lewis motion picture. It was funny and witty and just good natured, but so were nearly all of his films, due to the whimsical, forever young comedic character he created. But Couch was not groundbreaking nor a sweeping epic, that brought the audience to tears. It neither won nor was nominated for a single award, but none of that mattered, as I would watch it over and over again. So how could this film or man become so endearing to my life, alas I discovered and it makes perfect sense.
In 1984 or 1985, I was introduced to Dick Gregory, live. I never actually met nor do I even remember where I saw him (Los Angeles, Berkeley or Davis is the best I can narrow down). One of the most beneficial and unsung aspects of living inside the collegiate bubble, is that it offered a front row seat to the world, and even before the internet made life global, there was a continual presence of national and international speakers and entertainers, both world renowned and underground on the college campus. Always a very intimate scene, even when big names like Chaka Khan or Bishop Desmond Tutu came, they spoke on the Quad or performed in the student union, and all of it just became a part of being in school.
But perhaps to the audience members, that knew who he was and what to expect; I am pretty sure he delivered upon their expectations. But going in blank, with nothing at all to draw on, and no Youtube or wiki in existence to quickly catch up, being in the audience of a Dick Gregory presentation raw, was literally a shock to the system in a mind-blowing one man performance. And while I never followed him closely, or looked forward to his reaction following civil turmoil, and although he was very funny, nor did I seek him for comedy relief, but three decades after seeing him one time in a no more than a 2 hour engagement, I remain in awe at how he controlled our emotions and forced us into retracted thought, but he mastered his craft with such brilliance, that he never forgot he was a performer and we were riveted by the show.
Lewis’ zany characters – like the buck-toothed nutty professor – made us happy. But simultaneously (or maybe the tale end) to his movie career, Jerry Lewis would define celebrity and philanthropy, as his mission to raise funds (over $2 billion dollars during his tenure) and heightened the profile, so children with muscular dystrophy, could be happy too. To Hollywood, he was the sidekick to Dean Martin, and for his work, he was criticised for holding onto the reigns of the nonprofit for so long; but he made no apologies, for he knew, he was making a lasting contribution, that thousands would directly benefit from.
I remember being in the audience, laughing out loud as Gregory was a very funny comedian. But there was a flipside to the laughter, and even before it could roll to a natural end – out of nowhere – the activist broke out and his words turned from funny to deep and heavy and real and painful. And for the finale, he so eloquently reminded us, that it was now our responsibility to change the world. The entire show or lecture or I was never really sure what it was, but thinking back, it was so powerful and truthful and yes funny, that the idea my education had to benefit more than just me is clearly the part of him that remained with me.
In 2009, Jerry Lewis was celebrated for his philanthropy and finally it was Hollywood that threw the party, righteously adorning him with the Humanitarian Award (and at last he held an Oscar). In 1988, the major motion picture Mississippi Burning, rather purposeful or unintentionally, was so disrespectful in how it betrayed history, that it became a subject of its own debate. But only Dick Gregory would follow through on his condemnation, by way of confirming he was a Civil Rights activist first. Up for Best Picture of the Year, while Hollywood celebrated and Black America was complacent, Gregory remained true to his convictions, by staging a one man boycott of the Academy Awards… and it was news.
Jerry Lewis and Dick Gregory may be remembered for making us laugh, but the role they played in our lives was much greater than that. They demonstrated, that pursuing and achieving our own success, does not count as our contribution in making society a better place. And that ideology, has kept us in check.
RIP and thank you for the performance of your lives.
Day 3 of Our Week of War & Peace continues with…. an 18 year old autistic blogger, becomes the youngest poet to take The Neighborhood stage.