In the months since activist and comedian Dick Gregory’s death at 84 in August, his impact can still be felt among a wide range of people — from school teachers to his own singer-activist daughter.
“I feel him very intensely,” Ayanna Gregory tells Atlanta Black Star of her father’s life and legacy. “He’s even more powerful on the other side.”
The stand-up star’s reach spans several decades, including when he became the biggest comedian in America in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Throughout his life, he stood up for Black rights, women’s rights, indigenous people’s rights and spoke out against the 1980s crack epidemic plaguing Black communities. He also encouraged educators, like one daughter Ayanna recently met at Powell Elementary School in Washington, D.C., to go to college. Plus, the late Gregory promoted veganism in Black America, which led people like author Tracye McQuirter to quit meat altogether.
However, during Black History Month, his civil rights activism remains at the forefront of the discussion.
At the peak of his comedy career, he risked his life to join civil rights activist Medgar Evers, in Jackson Miss., to put a “spotlight on the ugliness” of Jim Crow, Ayanna explained.
She admitted her father was scared but his willingness to die showed how dedicated he was to the cause.
Still, he wasn’t alone in traveling the world to make a change for civil and human rights. His wife, Ayanna Gregory’s mother, Lilian Gregory, would accompany him. Ahead of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, the couple was “dragged away, arrested and jailed” during a 1970s demonstration outside the South African embassy in Washington, D.C.
And it wasn’t just the married couple — their 10 children joined in the push for civil and human rights, too.
“Almost all of us were jailed,” Ayanna explained. “I think I am literally the only one that did not go to jail because I was so little. But I’m not sure why my age mattered because of my oldest siblings Michele and Lynne … literally when they were 3- and 5-years-old — in Chicago marching — were thrown in a paddy wagon with my mother and put in jail. Can’t even make this stuff up.”
“My sisters Paula and Stephanie were marching in Greenwood, Miss., at 14 and 13,” she continued. “Facing death, facing the Ku Klux Klan, breaking down crying because this is the day they think they’re gonna die. And there’s guns pointed right at them, and they’re — just imagine at 13 and 14 I seriously have to consider that I might not live through this day and what does that mean as a child.”
When asked if there was a single thing Ayanna wanted people to remember about her father’s wide-ranging legacy, she simply pointed to his knack for shaking up the status quo.
“He was a truthteller, changemaker, agitator,” she said. “He made it very uncomfortable for this country to coexist with racism, sexism, with ignorance and hatred. He made it very uncomfortable for America to present lies as truth. As an agitator, he was the one getting in that ass to say, ‘I will not rest until you tell the truth about who you really are and I will not rest until we collectively as humanity decide that we’re not gonna coexist with filth.”
As an activist in her own right, Ayanna and her siblings are carrying the torch for their father and mother in different ways.
For Ayanna, that means using her art, music and spoken word to push the family narrative forward.
She currently has a one-woman play, called “Daughter of the Struggle,” which is an ode to her father and her family’s sacrifices. She also does motivational speaking across the nation — and most recently in the Caribbean — and performs with her band all “within the spirit of healing.”
“My father lit a fire inside of me,” she said. “And so, I can’t stop. I won’t stop. And will always — as long as I have breath — like Daddy, I’ma ride this thing until the wheels fall off.”