Comedian Dick Gregory's wit has propelled his political activism ever since his first standup routines in the 1950s. His latest book, "Defining Moments in Black History: Reading Between the Lies" (HarperCollins), features provocative essays about American history through the perspective of African Americans whose stories are not frequently told (or are mischaracterized) in history lessons. With biting wit and righteous indignation, Gregory counters the adage that history is written by the winners; sometimes all sides' stories do get told, if we are open to hearing them.
In the excerpt below, Gregory writes about a surprising conversation he had with activist Rosa Parks, who found herself on the front lines of the civil rights battles in Alabama while sitting inside a local bus.
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One day I was talking to Rosa Parks. I said to her, just teasing her, "When you refused to give up your seat on that bus, you wasn't just tired like white folks said you was."
She started crying, and I couldn't believe the answer she gave me.
Martin Luther King Jr., who gets all the credit for everything, was just an earnest Baptist preacher. His consciousness came from the white schools he went to. And he had that twang that Baptist preachers have that white folks can't understand. That's why all we ever heard of him on the TV networks were sound bites -- "Goin' to the mountaintop" and the rest of that stuff you hear year in and year out on his birthday.
But think about Rosa Parks and the effect she had on the whole planet. She didn't have a church behind her, like King did, but look what she did. When she refused to give up her bus seat to a white dude, and got arrested for it, black and white folks rallied around her.
That day I spoke to her -- we were just kicking back, having dinner at a hotel -- I was only playing when I said, "Look at your pretty feet. And they wanted to say you wouldn't give up your seat because you were tired."
Think about it. White folks try to say that if Rosa hadn't been too tired to get up from her seat that day, none of it would ever have happened -- everything that sparked the civil rights movement. That's what we let historians get away with.
I said to her, "Tell me. You tell me what happened."
And when she did, she caught me by surprise. She sounded almost like she was in a trance: "I just couldn't get Emmett Till off my mind," she said.
Rosa was born in 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama. Her daddy was one angry man because he wanted to be a Garveyite. Garveyites were those black folks who followed Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican-born black nationalist who advocated Pan-Africanism and the economic and political empowerment of blacks. But Marcus Garvey didn't accept light-skinned Negroes, and Rosa's dad was one. So, instead, he had to make do with sitting on his porch with his double-barrel shotgun daring white folks to mess with him.
At the time of the bus incident, Rosa was a secretary for the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP. White folks like to say she was just some tired housewife who didn't want to stand up on the bus that day, but she was no less an activist than Martin Luther King Jr.
In Montgomery, Alabama, where it happened, Negroes had to sit at the back of the bus, behind the white folks. But here's one thing I didn't know: they had to get on the bus at the front door, pay the fare, and then get off and walk to the back door. (When black folks got on at the back, they might find white boys in the back flirting with the black sisters, and most of those women would be flirting back, smiling and saying, "Aw, come on, Ed. You don't mean it." But not Rosa Parks -- she didn't play that mess. When white boys tried flirting with her, she'd say, "Don't you ever say that to me again, you son of a bitch, you.") Also, if you were black and you were sitting in the last row of seats reserved for white folks, and a white person wanted to sit down in that row, in your seat, then the three other blacks in the same row had to get up, too. It wasn't just one seat involved. That was segregation for you.
Anyway, a couple of times when Rosa got off the bus to walk to the back door after paying her fare up front, the driver drove off and left her -- one driver in particular. When she was describing that famous day to me, Rosa said, "Had I known that was him" -- meaning the driver who had given her trouble before -- "I wouldn't have got on that bus." But that's the universe at work.
So, there's Rosa sitting in the first row of the colored section when a white guy gets on and there are no free seats in the white section. Later, this man would say, "We were getting off in a couple of stops." So, he wasn't the one trying to make Rosa Parks give up her seat. He figured it wasn't worth the trouble. But the bus driver, the same one Rosa wanted to avoid, went back there and called her a n*gger b*tch and told her to get up.
But Rosa wasn't having it. She wasn't just tired, she was mad as hell because she was thinking about Emmett Till.
From the book "Defining Moments in Black History: Reading Between the Lies" by Dick Gregory. Copyright © 2017 by Dick Gregory. Reprinted by permission of Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
For more info:
- "Defining Moments in Black History: Reading Between the Lies" by Dick Gregory (HarperCollins); Also available in eBook and Digital Audio Download formats
- Dick Gregory (Official site)
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