One Nation

Comedian/activist Dick Gregory in 1964.

My late wife, Sandy, and I lived in Chicago for 36 years, mostly in Rogers Park, a far North Side community of roughly 70,000 folks. It was a wonderfully polyglot neighborhood, racially and culturally. The Baptist Church down the street offered services in English, Spanish, and Haitian.

To be honest, Sandy and I were a little smug about our choice. We had moved from Kansas City, where we had been civil rights activists, to Chicago in 1964. We were determined to live in a mixed-race neighborhood, such as Rogers Park. That made us Capital L Liberals.

In Chicago, where I was a newspaper reporter in the mid-1960s, I got to know Dick Gregory, the Black comedian turned civil rights activist quite well. He had led a peaceful civil rights march into Mayor Richard J. Daley's all-White and predominantly Irish neighborhood. In Chicago, that was news.

Although Gregory's career was red hot at the time, with regular gigs in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, he was alarmed by residential and school segregation in Chicago. The city was widely said to be "the most segregated city in the nation." Which it probably was.

I met Gregory shortly after he had led a peaceful civil rights march into Mayor Richard J. Daley's all-White and predominantly Irish neighborhood. His demand: that Daley fire the superintendent of schools, a man named Willis.

(One of the Willis's strategies in keeping black kids in overcrowded neighborhood schools rather than let them go to less-crowded "white" schools became known as "Willis Wagons." They were ugly 20 x 36 foot "mobile school units" that were placed on playgrounds, rendering the playgrounds fairly useless.)

Gregory's small band of marchers were remarkably and purposely sedate. They stayed on the sidewalks; stopped at intersections and waited for traffic to pass; and they didn't yell, but they did chant "Willis must go." Meanwhile, Daley's neighbors, as expected, went nuts, screaming obscenities at the marchers and threatening mayhem.

Nonetheless, Gregory and the marchers were arrested and carted off for "disturbing the peace." Even Mayor Daley's official observer, City Prosecutor Dick Elrod, noted that Gregory and his followers didn't do anything hostile. The rationale for the arrest was that their very presence antagonized Daley's neighbors so much that they might attack the marchers. And that would disturb the peace.

(That was a big deal to Mayor Daley. Racial tensions were high in many of the nation's large cities. The "Watts riot" in Los Angeles began a week or so after the arrest of Gregory.)

As a reporter, the Gregory arrest for walking on a sidewalk near the mayor's home seemed worth writing about. I followed the long drawn-out case and got to know Gregory pretty well. We even had a beer now and then in a bar across the street from the courthouse.

One day we spent hours driving around the city as Gregory showed me the sites of various outrages against Blacks. He was particularly scornful of the fact that the University of Chicago had promoted a vast urban renewal project in the university's Hyde Park neighborhood, one of the nation's hot spots for intellectual activity.

The university claimed that the renovation of Hyde Park had been a great boon to the city. But Blacks, including Gregory, labeled it "Negro removal." Which, in a sense, was true. Old but solid and affordable apartment houses had been razed and replaced by elegant and expensive townhouses and apartment buildings, mostly occupied by well-to-do whites.

Oddly, Gregory and his wife, Lillian, lived in the most elegant of the new apartment houses. And as I sat in their parlor drinking wine and interviewing Gregory, he and I tried to explore the Great Racial Divide — why was it so tough for Blacks and Whites to really get to know one another?

Yes, my wife and I lived in Rogers Park, allegedly the most "integrated" community in Chicago. We had Black neighbors and said friendly "hellos" at the supermarket. And we sat with Black men and women at twice monthly community police meetings, where we all wrung our hands about routine drug dealing and the inroads of the GDK, the Gangster Disciple Killers.

But in the end it came down to this, Gregory suggested: Black people had always felt "dissed" — disrespected — by Whites. Even Whites, like me, who meant well could not easily buddy up with Blacks. And Blacks had difficulty accepting the idea that Whites would ever fully accept them. Slavery was America's Original Sin.

Today, I think of that long-ago conversation with Dick Gregory as I look about at the recent rioting and destruction in America's cities. Yes, the rioting and burning was inexcusable — and surely counterintuitive. Burning and looting buildings is not the way to win friends and influence people.

And yet… the image of a White cop slowly and calmly choking the life out of a Black man as his colleagues silently watch is the ultimate "dis." We must, at last, begin to live up to that phrase -- "one nation, indivisible." If not... we will have failed the American dream.

Mike Moore, a former newspaper and magazine editor in Chicago, lives in Green Valley. He can be reached at m-smoore@socket.net. Gregory was convicted in Chicago of "disorderly conduct," a trivial offense. Nonetheless, the case worked its way to the U.S. Supreme Court -- Gregory v. City of Chicago. Gregory won. Chief Justice Earl Warren noted that the "petitioners were charged and convicted for holding a demonstration, not for refusal to obey a police officer."