Keeper of the Flame

February 7, 2020

When civil rights and comedic icon Dick Gregory died two years ago, his son, Christian Gregory, was determined his father's legacy would avoid the fate of so many other departed icons.

 

Standing on the stage of the City of Praise megachurch in suburban Maryland in September 2017, Christian delivered a eulogy worthy of his father — funny, profoundly relevant, and deeply touching.

 

In doing so, Christian captured the essence of his father, a man who’d played so many roles to so many people. Dick Gregory, 84, had been a trailblazer, the first Black comedian to play at all-White venues, including, famously, the Playboy Club, and later, a staunch civil rights activist who lent his support and voice to causes around the world.  He had also been a nutritionist, an author, and the subject of a play that ran on Broadway in New York, in Los Angeles, and in Washington, D.C. Younger generations came to know him through his talks on YouTube.

 

To his 10 adult children, his wife Lillian (Lil) Gregory, and his many grandchildren, he was simply beloved.

 

Upon his father's death, Christian, who had spent childhood summers joining his father in protests, and who had later served as his father's traveling companion, bodyguard, business manager and doctor, became the sole executor of his father's estate.

 

“Obviously losing a loved one is never easy, especially when that loved one is an absolute warrior, father, friend, husband,” he said that day at City of Praise. “The amount of folks who have walked up to me, just crying and embracing me, and I just look at them and quickly realized that despite my not having any earthly idea who they are, they know who I am.

 

“I’m not conceited enough to think that’s because they think I’m an amazing chiropractor,” he said, eliciting laughs from the sea of mourners, “but it’s because they’re crystal clear on who my father is.”

 

While many people in Dick Gregory’s inner circle had known the third-youngest of his children, it wasn’t until Christian stepped in front of that microphone that they realized a torch had been passed.

 

During his children's upbringings, Dick Gregory was often on the road, and by his own admission, an absentee father. During summers, however, Christian and his siblings would often join him from their home in Plymouth, Mass., for protests in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

 

Christian recalls going to Louisiana on a protest march with his father and other civil rights leaders when he was about nine or 10 years old. He said he didn’t really grasp the significance of why they were marching.

 

“I was just bored out of my mind,” he recalled. “We were singing the marching songs, you know, Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around, This Little Light of Mine. This was before cellphones and Walkmen, and I’m just there, stuck, miserable, wanting to be back in Plymouth. I’m like, yes, I want you to have your rights, but I’d like to enjoy my summer, please.”

 

During the march, he and a few other young boys hopped in the back of a pick-up truck that was escorting the march to go get some gas. When they arrived at the gas station, they found men waiting.

 

“There was [a] line of about 75 White men with bats who were just standing there, hitting the bats as we pull up,” Christian recalled. “One of the men just let out this horrible, Southern, gnarly, ‘Here comes the shithouse’ and then the bricks just started flying.

 

"I will remember ‘Here comes the shithouse’ for as long as I live,” he said.


When they rejoined the protesters, the windows of the truck were smashed and the passengers shaken. For Christian, that’s when the protests stopped being about hanging out with his friends and his father, and became something else entirely.

 

When his father saw the truck, Dick Gregory said simply, “You don't leave anymore.”

 

And in all the ways that mattered, Christian never did.

In many ways, the funeral arrangements would be a harbinger of what Christian would face as he navigated the complexities surrounding his father’s legacy. It was no less a daunting task than managing the day-to-day details of his father's business and life had been, but now it was also cloaked in grief.

 

Christian sat by his father’s bedside as he lay dying, worked with the doctors on his father’s treatment, and ensured paparazzi didn’t enter the room after he died. He issued the first public statement from the family announcing the death, and updated his father’s social media pages.

 

Christian arranged the coroner, the funeral home and the lawyers. Because funds from the estate hadn't yet been released, and because most of Dick's wealth rested in his intellectual property rather than more tangible financial assets, Christian had to scramble for funds to pay for the extensive arrangements celebrating Dick's life. This included securing loans to pay for the three days of celebrations, which required road closures, overflow parking in a football stadium lot, and the sort of permits reserved for military parades.  

 

Beginning with an intimate family viewing in the library of Howard University on Friday evening, the festivities included the City of Praise homegoing attended by several thousand mourners, with musical performances from India.Arie and Stevie Wonder; a dramatic reading by the star of the play based on Dick’s life, Joe Morton; a video of Cecily Tyson reading the opening paragraphs of a forthcoming biography; and speeches from a range of politicians, celebrities, and religious leaders. The adult children of other civil rights legends also spoke.

 

The eight-hour service was covered by multiple news crews in its entirety, and streamed around the world.

 

The ceremonies concluded on Sunday morning with a New Orleans-style procession, complete with a brass funk band and lace parasols, led by the family, from the historic Howard Theatre to the famous Ben’s Chili Bowl. Dick is painted on the mural outside Ben’s alongside Prince, Michelle and Barack Obama, and others.

 

Complex family negotiations resulted in fierce conversations about who would speak and perform at the various events, and who was best relegated to the audience. (Bill Cosby, who was awaiting his second trial on sexual assault charges, attended the funeral service, but he did not speak.) The funeral itself had been moved abruptly from the original venue, the Kennedy Center, to City of Praise, a move Christian fiercely opposed.

 

“I was outmaneuvered for the funeral,” he said. “My father went to Rosa Parks’ funeral, and he was so upset because it was seven and a half hours, and we went to Coretta Scott King’s funeral, and he was so upset that it was in a mega-church. Even with a will, that’s what he wound up getting.”

 

Christian’s younger sister Ayanna, who is herself a performer and sang at the funeral, doesn’t remember why the funeral was moved. “The funeral itself, the production, was definitely something that we all put together, in terms of the program.”

 

Her brother, she said, is “brilliant” and “a visionary.”

 

The importance of presenting a unified family front outweighed any objections, Christian said. He’s witnessed the impact family feuds can have on an icon’s legacy. It’s something he was determined wouldn’t happen with his family.

 

“My dad raised us all to be independent thinkers,” he said, “so you’re never going to get 10 independent thinkers to be on the same page.

 

“I stood down because the collective picture to me was more important, as odd as it sounds, than his [Dad’s] wishes,” Christian said. “I want to keep the Dick Gregory estate business sleepy and quiet and just business, and then let all of the intellectual property speak for itself.”

 

That’s no easy feat.

 

“When stories came out about Aretha Franklin demanding cash and not going on stage until it was in hand, well, it reflects the abusive practices of charlatans and disingenuous ‘professionals’ who suck the life out of our nation's icons,” Christian said. “Not all love is good. Family, friends and associates can love you to life or love you to death.”

 

With barely a moment to catch his breath after the funeral weekend, Christian took an extended leave of absence from his private practice to devote himself full-time to managing the projects his father had started, and the multitude of opportunities that have arisen since his death.

 

They're projects as varied and nuanced as his father’s career had been, including Turn Me Loose, the Broadway play; a forthcoming documentary, a forthcoming Adult Swim–style animated series using his recorded audio files of his father’s voice; a reissuance of his father’s controversial and empowering biography, Nigger; and the reissuance of his nutritional line, the Caribbean Diet, previously known as the Bahamian Diet.

 

There will also be a new biography authorized by Christian, a collection of Dick Gregory’s writings and speeches, exhibits, and a feature film.


Robert Raben, president and founder of The Raben Group, which provided branding guidance for several projects, said, “(Dick) Gregory is a challenge because he lived a long life and he evolved through different activities. So depending on your age, you have a different portal into the life of Dick Gregory. There are different permutations of the brand depending on your age, but the meta is activism and comedy.”

That multifaceted legacy has wrought more challenges than those of many estates, including a complex tapestry of intellectual property, a history of handshake deals, and myriad people who hold both real and perceived stakes in Dick Gregory’s legacy.

 

“My father’s intellectual property was a hodgepodge of poorly structured, murky deals not uncommon for African-American entertainers from his era,” Christian said. “This disarray had benefited many opportunists for decades, and they dug in and fought hard to preserve their fraudulent enterprises.”

 

Some of the items he has had to challenge include unauthorized recordings and an e-version of Nigger, which appeared on Amazon without a way to tell who sold it or for how much, an interview that was turned into a studio album, and more.

 

“Many of these perpetrators had at one time or another served in professional capacities for my father,” Christian said. “I’ve made tremendous progress on sorting it all out but am far from done.”

 

Ed Schmitt, an associate professor of history at the University of Wisconsin Parkside, and author of a forthcoming authorized biography about Dick Gregory, said he understands the responsibility Christian feels.

 

“As a historian, I've greatly appreciated how committed Christian is to a full exploration of his father's life and work,” Schmitt said. “For as dedicated as he is to protecting and publicizing his father's legacy, he is — as Dick Gregory was — deeply committed to getting at the truth, and in the process learning more about the remarkable reach of his father's almost boundlessly public life.

 

“Both Dick and Christian are Renaissance men, in every sense of the word,” Schmitt said.

 

Satori Gregory, Christian’s older sister, said she sees their father’s spirit embodied in her brother.

 

“He lives and breathes how he can show up and support my dad and make sure my dad’s legacy continues to flourish and thrive,” Satori says.

 

John Gould Rubin, who directed Turn Me Loose, says the same thing about Christian Gregory, with whom he worked closely as the play moved from Broadway — which Dick Gregory saw — to Los Angeles, and ultimately to D.C.’s Arena Stage. It was there that the play had to undergo significant changes for a new lead actor.

 

“I learned the scale of Dick’s contribution to humanity working on that play, and it went from being a play to being a historical responsibility,” Rubin said.

 

Dick Gregory “was a profound human being,” he said. “The thing that became so unusual for me is to discover that Christian is very much the incarnation of the man I was describing in the play.”

Christian is also forging ahead on his own path. He is a frequent corporate speaker, a spokesman for a line of cannabis-infused oils, a partner in a new crypto-collectible venture in which artists will release their music directly and a consultant to those whose livelihoods were damaged in the Gulf of Mexico following BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster. He’s also establishing a new podcast/broadcast studio in the office he shares with E. Faye Williams, president and CEO of the National Congress of Black Women, and a close friend of Dick’s and Christian’s.

 

“I don’t think Christian has had the chance to really grieve,” Williams said. “From Day One he went to work providing for the celebration of life for his dad and making sure that his legacy is known.”

 

The office houses not only his father’s foundation, the Dick Gregory Society, which Christian now runs, but Gregory Wellness & Gregory Media, the businesses Christian formed to oversee the various projects related to his father and his own interests. He's also working with Duke University on developing coursework related to the history of civil rights and entertainment, with a focus on his father's work.

 

Ultimately, he said, he’d like to launch a Dick Gregory Prize for entertainers, athletes and other public figures who are using their platforms for social activism.

 

“In a perfect world, I’d align it with the Kennedy Center,” he said, which presents the annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor to comedians.

 

While he doesn’t see himself as a civil rights activist, he sees a unique role in helping those who are. He’s consulting with other aging civil rights legends, not only on structuring their estates to prevent conflict among their families and ensuring their legacies are protected, but also to assist in their advanced health care needs.

 

“They get old like everyone else,” Christian said. “They get sore feet, or a sore back, dementia, Alzheimer’s. They get confused, they get angry, and I see a lot in them what I saw in my dad as his situation was worsening.

 

“This is no country for old legends,” Christian said. “My dad said, ‘There’s no such thing as retirement for me. I’m gonna earn until I go.’ And he had 10 shows the week he died.”

— Molly McCluskey is a freelance writer.

 


 

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The Crisis magazine is a quarterly journal of politics, culture, civil rights and history that seeks to educate and challenge its readers about issues facing African-Americans and other communities of color.

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