How Dick Gregory got his Hollywood Star
By George E. Curry, NNPA Columnist
Activist/ SiriusXm satellite radio host Joe Madison was helping on a campaign to get the Four Tops a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame when he noticed another serious omission from the world-famous tribute to entertainers.
“You go to Hollywood and Gene Autry had five (one in each category). Big Bird had a star. When we did our campaign to get the Four Tops a star, I said, ‘My God, Dick Gregory doesn’t have a star.” In 1997, seven years after getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Four Tops, – whose 1960s hits included such songs as “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “Ask the Lonely,” “I Can’t Help Myself” and “It’s the Same Old Song” – finally were awarded a star.
But Madison couldn’t get over the fact that Dick Gregory, the first Black comedian to earn more than $1 million a year yet gave up his career to actively support Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), hadn’t been recognized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
“You can walk down there and not see Dick Gregory, but you’ll see Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor and Whoppi Goldberg,” Madison said. “I don’t know of any entertainer from the era who sacrificed more than Dick Gregory.”
About 10 years ago, he set out to change that.
“The first time we tried it, we filled out a very complicated application and the committee – the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce – didn’t award him a star,” Madison remembered. “I tried again and they still didn’t accept it. We let some time go by. This time (in 2013), I said, ‘Look, this is ridiculous.’ That’s when I got Sheila Moses, who helped write Dick’s last book, help word the application. E. Faye Williams, president of the National Congress of Black Women, helped and we put the application together and sent it in. Finally, the committee accepted him in the class of 2015.”
At the age of 85, Gregory joins a class that includes Kool & the Gang, Pharrell Williams, Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler. The induction ceremony was carried live Monday on national and international television.
Before Gregory could receive his honor, $30,000 had to be submitted on his behalf to cover the creation and installation of his star as well as maintenance of the Walk of Fame.
A small group of supporters got together to strategize. The first idea was to reach out to some of the biggest names in Hollywood who could write the $30,000 within the blink of the eye, including fellow comedian Bill Cosby and Hugh Hefner, who lifted Gregory to national stardom in 1961 by regularly booking him at Chicago’s Playboy Club. The second idea was to identify 30 people willing to donate $1,000 each.
But Joe Madison had a better idea.
He recalled, “I got with Sherry [his wife and radio producer] and said, ‘Let’s go on the air and make this very simple – 1,000 people with $30. If I don’t have 1,000 listeners who can afford $30, I need to be off the air.’”
Madison didn’t need to get off the air – the $30,000 goal of the Dick Gregory Hollywood Star Fund was reached in two weeks.
“What it really speaks to is Dick,” he said. And it’s hard to find anyone who has not been touched by Dick Gregory in some way.
As a teenager growing up in Tuscaloosa, Ala., I remember hearing him speak at First African Baptist Church, the nerve center of our efforts to desegregate my hometown. I was stunned by the way he boldly attacked segregation, keeping us laughing along the way.
He would say, “The last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant and this White waitress came up to me and said, ‘We don’t served colored people here.’ I said, ‘That’s all right. I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.’”
And there was this one: “Segregation is not all bad. Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?”
There was simply no one else like Dick Gregory. And callers into Joe Madison’s radio show shared their special memories.
Madison remembers the call-ins: “One guy, who’s a doctor in New Orleans, said, ‘Dick Gregory spoke at Xavier University. I was a student and I still have the notes from that speech.’ He was in school in the 70s.
“An executive from Caterpillar in Peoria, Ill. said, ’I am the only Black sitting up here on the seventh floor and I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Dick Gregory. I know you asked for $30, but I am sending $1,500.”
Most of the contributors were everyday people who donated $30.
“It had to be done,” Madison said of the campaign to honor Gregory. “People say, ‘Who cares about a star on the Walk of Fame? It’s about marking your territory.”