Persistence is a hallmark of a private detective. Sunday night, my persistent investigation of a racial incident in Forest Park paid off. I had the chance to meet one of the men who gave assistance to a black Forest Park family in 1976, back when bricks and racial slurs were flying.
He is comedian/activist Dick Gregory. I had felt a personal connection to Mr. Gregory, ever since I saw him at a nightclub the night of my senior prom. He was on a hunger strike. I don’t remember what he was protesting but, after surveying the supper club, his first words were, “I’m hungry.”
Forty years later, I found out about Mr. Gregory’s involvement with the Forest Park homeowner. He told me he had reached out to the black comedian to help him get assistance from authorities. Mr. Gregory reportedly escorted him to the Forest Park Police Station and FBI headquarters downtown to make sure the family received police protection. He claimed that Mr. Gregory’s efforts resulted in a squad car being stationed at the house. The harassment stopped.
Over the years, I followed Mr. Gregory’s career. I saw him appear in documentaries. His face would be encircled with a full white beard that resembled a lion’s mane. He roared like a lion about racial injustice. He was edgy, outspoken and topical, piercing prejudice with his wit.
As you can imagine, Mr. Gregory’s celebrity made it difficult to connect with him. But I was determined to find out if the homeowner’s story was true. I found a dear friend of his in California, who provided me with his personal cell phone number.
When I called him, I immediately knew it was bad timing. He told me he was just about to give a speech at a college. In his brusque manner, he told me to “stop wasting my time” and call his wife. I later had a pleasant chat with Mrs. Gregory who suggested I send a letter.
Before I could get a reply, I heard Dick Gregory was performing in Chicago on April 13. The show’s producer told me that if I arrived four hours before the show, she would arrange a meeting.
After hours of waiting, a line formed for patrons to meet Mr. Gregory. When I reached the front, I brought up the Forest Park incident. The 82 year-old instantly remembered it. Then, with a sharp tongue he said, “You sent something to my wife about this.” He claimed that my letter had upset her. Next, he was accusing me of being from the IRS or some other government watchdog. I realized he was kidding when he told me to re-send the letter and make sure to include my phone number.
I stayed for Gregory’s act. He relaxed in a leather armchair and ranted about race and current events. The “N-word” was prominent, stereotypes flourished and he was hilarious. No one was spared. He made fun of albinos, baby pigeons and bill collectors. He said, “I’ll die for the ghetto but I’m not living in it.” He also claimed that, “Black mega-churches were getting loans when GM couldn’t.” He took shots at whites and blacks almost equally. At the end, the first black comedian to ever sit on the “Tonight Show” couch rose from the chair to impart some wisdom. “Be happy and pray while you’re gambling.”
I can’t wait to send another letter and to someday speak with the lion about how he helped out a family in Forest Park.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.