Black pride, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bill Cosby were among the topics discussed by comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, the keynote speaker at Wednesday's Tampa Bay Black Heritage Festival Leadership Luncheon.
Known for his gruff, in-your-face commentary, the 84-year-old Gregory wasted no time setting the tone for his speech after taking the stage at the University Area Community Development Center.
"I wonder if you all know who you are?" he asked the mostly African-American crowd of several hundred people.
"Black people are some of the most powerful people on the planet, but you won't believe it unless white people tell you."
For those taken aback by Gregory's brash comments about race, he offered context in a history lesson. When he first hit the comedy scene in the late 1950s, black comics were relegated to acts that involved singing and dancing. It was uncommon for black comics to do standup.
"White people who are here, I'll be saying some things about white folks — but not about you," he said.
Gregory mixed in humor while touching on several subjects including President Barack Obama, race relations and offered matter-of-fact solutions to everyday problems.
"A brother called me saying they were about to repossess his car," he said. "'What should I do?' he asked me. I said, 'Don't park in front of the house.'"
Gregory's voice was more solemn when talking about fellow comedian Cosby.
He inferred that allegations that Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted more than 50 women over several decades are linked to the entertainer's attempts to purchase a major media company. But Gregory offered no definitive evidence or proof of that.
He noted that when Cosby's son Ennis was shot and killed on a California highway in 1997, his famous father was in talks to take over the NBC television network. The New York Times, however, reported Bill Cosby was in talks to buy NBC in 1992.
Fast forward two decades. Gregory said the allegations against Cosby have emerged while he was again in talks to buy another large media company. The Tampa Bay Times could not find news reports that Cosby was currently involved in such a deal.
Gregory — a supporter of feminism who has worked with the National Organization of Women — stopped well short of declaring Cosby's innocence, however. "I'm not saying he didn't do it," Gregory said.
Gregory encouraged the audience to embrace ordinary heroes in their communities, saying too much attention is given to celebrities and professional athletes.
"There's some people in here that have done more to expand humanity that 99 percent of entertainers put together," he said.
He also talked about the recent shootings and attacks of unarmed black men by police, expressing astonishment that people still dispute actions captured on video.
Gregory concluded by telling the organizers of the festival to continue their work.
"Don't stop doing what you're doing," he said. "You can do some things in this town."
Contact Kenya Woodard at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SCOTT KEELER | Times
Longtime civil rights activist, writer, social critic and comedian Dick Gregory talks to the crowd at the Tampa Bay Black Heritage Festival Leadership Luncheon at the University Area Community Development Center in Tampa on Wednesday.