This week two men were executed in different prisons here in the United States. Troy Davis was one of them, and his case received nationwide attention because there was considerable doubt about his guilt.
And as last minute appeals to grant him a stay of execution were heard, nearly every news station in America covered the story live. Here was yet another case of a black American being put to death, in-spite of doubts about his guilt - and America was troubled.
Meanwhile, earlier that same evening, a man convicted of a brutal, racially motivated murder, was executed in Texas. And millions around the nation cheered.
This man, Lawrence Russell Brewer, was a white man who had killed a black man by dragging him chained behind his truck for two miles - simply because he was black. It was a heinous hate-crime, and Mr. Brewer received little sympathy as he headed for the gallows.
But as thousands stood outside the prison (and millions more watched on television) and protested Mr. Davis' execution - nothing of the kind occurred in Texas. Indeed , for many, he couldn't be executed fast enough. However, there was one man there - protesting the execution of this white racist. There was a voice raised to say "This is wrong." And it was the voice of a black man who had himself often been on the receiving end of racist behavior. Yet here he stood to oppose the execution of one of the most evil of racists imaginable. This man was Dick Gregory.
A Slap to the Face
I first heard Dick Gregory speak in 1969, when I was a freshman in college at a little farm town in Washington State named Pullman; home to Washington State University. I remember him saying "I've never been here before, and even though this is a little all-white town in the middle of nowhere - I could find and buy heroin within three hours." That comment hit me like a slap in the face. It said to me, "you think you're in some protected bubble here? Well, there are no protective bubbles my friend. Reality is everywhere." And over his long career - Dick Gregory has slapped a lot of faces - and made many think the same thing I did, so long ago.
But as time went on - he became less safe. He became a mentor to Cassius Clay - probably the most hated black man in America at the time. And when Clay became a Muslim and changed his name to Muhammed Ali, the association further weakened his acceptability in white America.
Mr. Gregory then became a vocal and articulate critic of the war in Viet Nam. And white America pushed him further aside. And when Dick became a vegetarian - now he was deemed certifiably weird - and definitely no longer safe.
Once weighing 350 pounds, drinking a fifth of Scotch and smoking four packs of cigarettes a day - his transformation both physically and ideologically troubled white America. Not only was he no longer safe - he had become downright threatening. And his days as a mainstream comedian were over.
But Dick has stuck around, and continued to be the man he transformed himself into. His acerbic wit and unusual life-style have been challenging America's cultural pillars for over 50 years now. He has remained a fixture on the cultural periphery, a sort of modern Mark Twain, pointing to America's warts and blemishes and reminding us all that we're not nearly as cute as we think we are.
So when I saw him outside that Texas prison the other day - I wasn't really surprised. He was once again delivering a sharp 'slap to the face' of America. His presence there was a rebuke to the hypocrisy of those who opposed an unjust execution on the one hand, while they cheered a "just" one with the other. His presence and opposition to the killing of one of the most vile people to ever walk this Earth was a clarion call for moral consistency. For integrity.
I too had, deep within, cheered Mr. Brewer's execution. I remember thinking to myself, "Good. I hope he rots in hell." But as I saw Dick Gregory silently standing there - saying no to death, and yes to humanity - I once again felt that sharp slap in the face he first delivered to me as a young college student. And I felt pure, unadulterated shame for what I had just thought about this man's execution.
And for instilling that feeling of shame and self-embarrassment in me, I have only one thing to say to Dick Gregory.