At 56, Dick Gregory, the comedian-social satirist whose inflammatory social insights sting everyone from Lee Iacocca to the CIA, still puts together such a quick-moving string of polemics that most audiences find it difficult to keep up with him.
Gregory--who comes across as part comedian, part preacher and part mystic--demonstrated his range Wednesday night in Irvine, where he was guest speaker at UC Irvine's fourth annual Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium. He played to a capacity crowd of 370 people, ranging from teen-agers to senior citizens. About half of them were black.
Gregory, whose career began in the early '60s with fast-talking stand-up comedy and took a dramatic twist in the late '60s when he began fasting and protesting on behalf of such social causes as world hunger and the war in Indochina, came out loud and furious and did not slow down during the three hours he paced the stage.
Although he occasionally addressed Martin Luther King Jr.'s impact on U.S. history, most of his talk centered on his characteristic conspiracy theories involving the CIA, the FBI, the Mafia and the press.
"If you only knew what some of us know about the things the CIA has been doing, things that would make the Nazis blush," he said.
The conspiracy, he claimed, even extends to the AIDS epidemic, which he said was started by the government.
Then there was the taking of U.S. hostages in Iran in 1979: "Doesn't it bother you that no big-shot diplomat was in the embassy when the hostages were taken? That is because they knew in advance what was going to happen."
When Gregory uses the word "they," he means all the conspiring organizations that are trying to "play their game behind your back." He also still makes liberal use of the word nigger , as a splash of cold water on the faces of young audience members who don't hear that word in interracial circles anymore.
Gregory, who is noticeably thin from the countless fasts he has undergone and whose black beard is peppered with gray, began his fast-paced oratory with an attack on the "system," which, he said, blames blacks for most of the ills of society.
"The blacks were not involved with the stock market until it fell," he said. "Then they called it Black Monday. When it went back up they called it Yellow Tuesday. You people (blacks) had better learn to understand the white mentality."
He said that "rich white people" called him for advice after the stock market crash. "I told them the same thing they've been telling us (blacks) for years: Just keep hanging on. . . . Go out and get a job. . . . Pull yourself up by your briefcase straps."
Lee Iacocca was the target of Gregory's next attack.
"Lee Iacocca confessed that he had turned back some of the meter gauges on his cars. If some farmer from Illinois or some welfare mother had done the same thing, you'd be outraged. But no one said anything about Iacocca. The next day the (man) was still making commercials."
Then, with only a short pause for breath, he turned his criticism on blacks who stand up for the ideals of King only on the civil rights leader's birthday: "When is the last time one of you sent Coretta Scott King a birthday card? You only come out and talk about King and social justice on his birthday. You should be talking about that all the time.
"There's a big job to be done."
Gregory's style was so wry and penetrating that most in the audience found it hard to know when to laugh.
His humorous comments included references to today's political scene: "In the middle of the Iran-Contra hearings, Oral Roberts said he could raise the dead. It made (Lt. Col. Oliver) North and (Adm. John) Poindexter nervous that he would bring (former CIA director William) Casey back from the dead."
At times his criticism was aimed straight at the audience, which responded with nervous laughter. For example, he said, "You'd pay $15 billion to play the lottery, but you won't pay $15 billion to help end the national debt."
And then: "You don't want to put on a seat belt, but doesn't it bother you that you would if someone told you it would save you 2 more miles per gallon?"
And finally: "Doesn't it bother you that in a Christian society, you are running around with a gun and a Bible in the same house? There is something definitely wrong here."
But Gregory did add a note of optimism:
"Some people say to me 'America; love it or leave it,' and I say I won't love it because it's not a friendly country, and I won't leave it until I personally straighten it out."