September 16, 2017
To the Friends and Family of Dick Gregory:
We are here to honor a man who, no matter how fast he ran, found a way to stand steady and still — in the face of beatings, lies, abuse, and threats. We are here to say that we are grateful that he walked where we walk today and where we walked during our yesterdays, on the campus of Southern Illinois University, down the road from St. Louis, in Carbondale.
We all have a “Dick Gregory story,” some going back more than sixty years; some going back less than six. I first met him in 2009 when SIUC invited him back to serve as our Homecoming Grand Marshall. At that time, I was starting my Master’s program and serving as the graduate adviser to the Black Affairs Council, which represents the campus’ 2,000 Black students. The university made us aware that he was coming and wanted to make sure he saw a Black presence while on campus. Yet, upon his arrival, it became increasingly difficult for our students to gain access to him. While disappointed, we understood; after all this was Dick Gregory and we were mere students. However, during the tailgate, Mr. Gregory escaped his alumni entourage and found his way to us.
It was that moment that I understood him. Mr. Gregory was fierce in his attention to the pain behind every act of anger, and to the hope behind every step of resistance. But while he was sharp-talking, bullet-fast bubble busting and gut-hurting in his humor, he was profoundly gentle in his ability to really see each person he encountered. And get them to see themselves in new ways.
How many generations of us have been the beneficiaries of his sacrifices, his prophetic truth-telling and his quick way to make the carpet disappear from under our feet. He made us laugh until we suddenly realized that as soon as we laughed at him, he had us laughing at ourselves.
A survivor from north St. Louis, to segregated Carbondale, to the failing and flailing South, Mr. Dick Gregory was a philosopher, a social analyst, a political agitator, and a teacher. He cannot be “forgotten.” We cannot leave this place today acting as if we have “lost” him. How can you lose what you carry inside you? How can you forget the sacrifices, physical, emotional, financial and spiritual this man showed us, and say, “We will never see his like, again”?
But we will hear him. We will find a film in which he is acting the fool, as wise as Shakespeare or Bert Williams ever performed. We will know that he believed in us. We know that he told us the truest truth possible when he said, “The Negro has a callus growing on his soul and it’s getting harder and harder to hurt him there . . and unless that system is adjusted to fit him, too, that callus is going to wear out that system.”
We represent the Black Alumni of Southern Illinois University. But we also represent all those in whom Dick Gregory had hope. He calls us to get busy in the face of renewed anger and violence and to get ready to shoot off our mouths if we can, and to protect our souls in the face of every assault.
Mr. Gregory, thank you. We will always be your students.
Black Alumni Group
Southern Illinois University Carbondale