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How Words Change the World. Remembering Comedians Jerry Lewis and Dick Gregory

by Erik Fogel | Aug 21, 2017 4:19:32 PM |

dick gregory, jerry lewis


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


“If you think childlike, you'll stay young. If you keep your energy going, and do everything with a little flair, you're gunna stay young. But most people do things without energy, and they atrophy their mind as well as their body. You have to think young, you have to laugh a lot, and you have to have good feelings for everyone in the world, because if you don't, it's going to come inside, your own poison, and it's over.”  – Jerry Lewis


This weekend, in less than 24 hours, the world lost two comedic icons. Jerry Lewis and Dick Gregory. Jerry Lewis – comedian, film producer, screenwriter, and activist died at the age of 91 .  Dick Gregory – comedian, performer, writer, civil rights leader and activist died at the age of 84. Both used their words to make the world laugh, smile and both used their words to change the world.  


Jerry Lewis

“People say, "How would you like to be remembered?" I don't want to be remembered. Gimme a break. What I want is to hear what's great about me now. Let me hear it! In the box you don't hear these eulogies.” – Jerry Lewis


Lewis made the world laugh for half a century and of course the world will keep on laughing. He starred in more than 45 films in a career spanning five decades. He received several awards for lifetime achievement from the American Comedy Awards, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Venice Film Festival and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and was honored with two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He was not only the biggest star and highest paid actor in Hollywood but also became one of the biggest stars and highest paid actors in Broadway history in musicals. As Lewis said himself, “I've had great success being a total idiot.”


But even more important than all his movies and performances was using his words and voice to make the world a better place. Lewis raised billions of dollars for public charities. He served as national chairman of the Muscular Dystrophy Association and hosted the live Labor Day weekend broadcast of the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon for 44 years.   He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 for all his charitable efforts. His charity was for all.  And his comedy the greatest charity for all to laugh and make oneself happy.  “You might as well like yourself; just think about all the time you're gonna have to spend with you.” – Jerry Lewis 


"MDA (Muscular Dystrophy Association) would not be the organization it is today if it were not for Jerry's tireless efforts on behalf of 'his kids.' His enthusiasm for finding cures for neuromuscular disease was matched only by his unyielding commitment to see the fight through to the end," said MDA Chairman of the Board R. Rodney Howell in a statement Sunday. "Jerry's love, passion and brilliance are woven throughout this organization, which he helped build from the ground up."


The telethons went beyond impacting Muscular Dystrophy by empowering all individuals with disabilities. "The telethons have heightened public awareness, not only for MDA victims, but other disabilities as well," MDA spokesman Bob Mackle once said. "Before the telethons, people with disabilities weren't seen on television. Children were not allowed in schools, disabled persons were shunned. The telethons changed that by humanizing the victims."


"MDA and the families we serve will always be grateful for the thousands of hours he dedicated through the telethon…. Though we will miss him beyond measure, we suspect that somewhere in heaven, he's already urging the angels to give 'just one dollar more for my kids.’” - MDA Chairman of the Board R. Rodney Howell


Dick Gregory


Dick Gregory was not only one of the most gifted comedians in the world, but he used comedy to change the world. Gregory got his start in comedy in the US Army when he was drafted and encouraged by his commanding officer to enter several Army talent shows, which he won. After the Army, he primarily performed at segregated clubs to black audiences until 1961, when he became one of the first black comedians to successfully cross over to white audiences. Gregory drew on current events, especially racial issues, for much of his material: "Segregation is not all bad. Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?"


Gregory and the Civil Rights Movement

Gregory was at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement, and became friends with leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. He was arrested dozens of times because of his activism. While jailed in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, he wrote that he had received “the first really good beating I ever had in my life.”


Gregory and Politics

Gregory also ran for office. He unsuccessfully ran against Richard Daley in 1967 for the office of mayor of Chicago. A year later, he also ran for U.S. president as a write-in candidate with the Freedom and Peace Party. He also campaigned against the Vietnam War, and went on hunger strikes. His political involvement landed him on President Nixon’s list of political opponents.


Gregory and Feminism

Gregory was an outspoken feminist, and in 1978 joined Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, Margaret Heckler, Barbara Mikulski, and other suffragists to lead the National Equal Rights Amendment March for Ratification.


Gregory and Animal Rights

In 2003, Gregory and Cornel West wrote letters on behalf of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to Kentucky Fried Chicken's CEO, asking that the company improve its animal-handling procedures.


Gregory on Personal Health, Nutrition and Well Being

Gregory became devoted to health and fitness, adopted a vegetarian diet and started researching, speaking and writing on African American health, fitness, and nutrition. In 1984 he founded Health Enterprises to improve life expectancy and nutrition for African Americans and to combat drug and alcohol abuse.  In 1985, the Ethiopian government adopted Gregory's forumula to combat malnutrition during a period of famine.


Gregory as an Author

Gregory also wrote and published numerous books including:

  • nigger, an autobiography written with Robert Lipsyte P. Dutton, September 1964. (one account says 1963) (reprinted, Pocket Books, 1965–present)
  • Write me in!, Bantam, 1968.
  • From the Back of the Bus
  • What's Happening?
  • The Shadow that Scares Me
  • Dick Gregory's Bible Tales, with Commentary, a book of Bible-based humor. ISBN0-8128-6194-9
  • Dick Gregory's Natural Diet for Folks Who Eat: Cookin' With Mother Nature!ISBN 0-06-080315-0
  • (with Shelia P. Moses), Callus on My Soul: A MemoirISBN0-7582-0202-4
  • Up from Nigger
  • No More Lies; The Myth and the Reality of American History
  • Dick Gregory's political primer
  • (with Mark Lane), Murder in Memphis: The FBI and the Assassination of Martin Luther King
  • (with Mel Watkins), African American Humor: The Best Black Comedy from Slavery to Today (Library of Black America)
  • Robert Lee Green, Dick Gregory, daring Black leader
  • African American Humor: The Best Black Comedy from Slavery to Today(editor). ISBN 1-55652-430-7
  • "Not Poor, Just Broke", short story
  • "Defining Moments in Black History: Reading Between the Lies", 2017.


And so we remember Jerry Lewis and Dick Gregory today. Heaven just got a lot funnier. 

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