LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Trailblazing comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory has died. He was 84 years old. He was the first black standup comic to perform in major, white nightclubs, where his sharp satire of segregation in the early 1960s gave the country what he described as healthy racial jokes that kept audiences in stitches.
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DICK GREGORY: You know, I feel so sorry for Willie. I hate to see any baseball player having troubles. That's a great sport for my people. That is the only sport in the world where a Negro can shake a stick at a white man and won't start no riot.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But it was an invitation to speak that came from his friend Medgar Evers in 1962 that launched his lifetime commitment to civil rights and social justice. We're joined this morning by Congressman John Lewis, another hero of the civil rights movement and the Democratic representative for Georgia's 8th District. Good morning, and thank you for joining us, sir.
JOHN LEWIS: Good morning. Happy to be with you this morning on a very, very sad morning.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Indeed, sir. Can you remind us when you met Mr. Gregory?
LEWIS: I first met Dick Gregory in 1962. He came to the South to help out in the civil rights movement. And then he came over and over again to speak, to march, to sit in. On one occasion in Selma, Ala., we needed someone like Dick Gregory to come. And he could not come. But he sent his wife Lillian, who came with us. And she was willing to get arrested and go to jail with us. This man made an unbelievable contribution to the cause of social justice.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you think it was about his comedy in particular that spoke so sharply to audiences in the early 1960s?
LEWIS: Well, he had the ability to make us laugh when we probably needed to cry. He had the ability to make the whole question of race, segregation, and racial discrimination simple, where people could come together and deal with it and not try to hide it under the American rug.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: His role as an activist, you say, was important. Can you tell us why it was so important that a man like Dick Gregory was so prominently involved in the civil rights movement?
LEWIS: With Dick Gregory as an entertainer, when he got involved and supported, it brought a great deal of attention to what was happening in Selma, Ala., Greenwood, Miss., or in Atlanta, Ga. And it encouraged other entertainers to stand up and to speak up and to speak out and become involved.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Just briefly, sir, he was a performer who married both his art and his activism. What can we learn from that, do you think?
LEWIS: I think we can learn that when you see something that is not right not fair, not just, whatever your role is in life, you have an obligation to speak up and to speak out and become involved.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Thank you so much, Congressman John Lewis.
LEWIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.