Thousands lined up outside the City of Praise Family Ministries church outside Washington, D.C., on Saturday to celebrate the life of comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, who died Aug. 19.
As the crowd waited for the doors to open, some sang freedom songs like “Ella’s Song” and the black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” It was a community event in which those from all walks of life paid tribute to a man who touched many and whose impact and influence were an integral part of the civil rights movement and the continued fight for social justice.
The six-hour Celebration of Life service opened with a farewell video from award-winning actress Cicely Tyson and included passionate speeches, moving musical tributes, and video montages of Gregory’s family, life and career. The program booklet included letters from former President Barack Obama, the National Newspaper Publishers Association, the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus. There was also a resolution from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Gregory’s son Christian wanted to set the record straight. His father, he noted during the service, did not die of heart failure, as had been reported in the media.
“It wasn’t his heart. His blood vessels were damaged from starving himself to bring attention to what was going on in the world,” said Christian, one of Gregory’s 10 children. “We thank him for a life of sacrifice. We acknowledge the suffering and glory.”
Mark Thompson, host of the Sirius XM radio program Make It Plain, was master of ceremonies and charged with keeping the tributes to three minutes. But very few could abide by that rule. Speakers included Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton; Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser; civil rights activist the Rev. C.T. Vivian; and radio host Joe Madison, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now and Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC’s The Last Word. Bill Cosby and his wife, Camille, sat in the front row during the service and received a show of support as they left.
The children of the movement spoke of how Gregory gave them guidance. Richard Pryor’s daughter Rain Pryor said that Gregory’s book Nigger was one of the first three books her father gave her, and Martin Luther King III said that Gregory was a mentor, noting that there was a demonstration on the day he died and, most recently, protests in St. Louis, the city of Gregory’s birth. The two were joined onstage by Reena Evers, daughter of Medgar Evers, and Ilyasah Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X.
The service was part celebration, part church service and part rally as speakers urged the crowd to continue Gregory’s fight for social justice.
NAACP Chairwoman Emeritus Myrlie Evers-Williams described Gregory as the epitome of leadership and said that we should be prepared to pick up his mantle and run the rest of the race.
“We have to rededicate ourselves to the things he worked for and believed in,” Evers-Williams said. “Today we have as much a job to do for justice and equality as we’ve ever had before.”
The Rev. William Barber said that Gregory was a “genius, brilliant.”
“He challenged lies and made a fool of Jim Crow,” Barber said. “He wasn’t performing; he was preaching. You were hearing a prophet. His comedy gave us backbone. It was a balm in Gilead.”
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) went well beyond her three minutes not only to lift up the life of her friend but also to bring attention to the plight of youths living under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and to call again for the impeachment of the president. The congresswoman said that she wished she had the counsel of Gregory at this time.
“I’m going to take as long as I want. I loved Dick Gregory. He was my friend, my counselor, my adviser, my hero,” said Waters. “I’m at a time in my life when I’ve taken the gloves off. I don’t want to be safe. It’s time for all of us to walk in the walk of Dick.”
Scandal actor Joe Morton performed a monologue from the off-Broadway play Turn Me Loose, based on Gregory’s life.
“He was a man of great intellect,” said Morton. “He used every hour of his life to embarrass this country to be a more perfect union.”
India.Arie sang a tribute to Gregory’s wife of 58 years, Lillian, who was lifted up throughout the service for her dedication, commitment, love and sacrifice. Gregory’s daughter Ayanna performed a moving rendition of her song “Ballad for My Father: Tribute to Dick Gregory.”
In addition, family tributes included Gregory’s brother Ronald; Gregory’s oldest child, Michele Gregory; and Gregory’s grandson Busayo Bird-Maqubela.
Gregory’s youngest child, Yohance Maqubela, said that his father taught him gratitude and “put the fire of truth in me.”
“My father always said it’s not about the sprint, it’s about the relay,” said Maqubela. “Daddy has handed us the baton. The best way to honor my father is to carry out the work he committed his life to.”
During his 45-minute eulogy, Minister Louis Farrakhan emphasized that we were not celebrating the loss of a comedian.
“He was a guide, a teacher, a friend, an activist, a giver, a sufferer—one of the most marvelous human beings I’ve had the pleasure of knowing in my 84 years,” said Farrakhan. “He had us laughing, but he was not a comedian. His jokes were filled with wisdom.”
The minister recalled meeting Gregory more than 50 years ago at “a little luncheonette.”
“Few people operated at the level that he operated,” said Farrakhan. “When Dick was around, you loved to listen. From the time he sat down from the time he left, he was giving us facts and figures.”
The Nation of Islam leader said that Gregory’s mind was always on freedom and justice: “His work speaks for him. He was one of the greatest living legends of our time.”
The service for Gregory ended with a tribute from Stevie Wonder, who said that Gregory saved his life. Wonder sang “As” and was joined onstage by Ayanna Gregory during “Higher Ground.”