Greek Colonels and Black Preachers

A couple of flash-backs to the Sixties which comment on our world today. First a movie, then a stand-up comic.

The movie is the political thriller Z, which I just finished watching again, courtesy Netflix. I first saw it when it came out in 1969, and I was — I think it’s not too strong a word — I was stunned. Z, though ostensibly fiction, was based on Vassilis Vassilikos’ 1966 novel of the same name, and accurately described Greek politics of the era. A liberal political figure, Grigoris Lambrakis, was killed, and a military junta took control of the country.

On re-view, the movie retains its dramatic power, as a story, but — and here’s where the comment on today comes in — the reality behind it is no longer shocking. Maybe it was my own innocence of the time, but I think it was our innocence of the time. Right-wing groups bullying their way to power? That, despite the Fifties stardust, did not end when Hitler was defeated. It kept on. It’s still going on. I had no difficulty at all imagining Karl Rove or Dick Cheney as one of the Greek Colonels.

The stand-up comic is Dick Gregory, who also came to prominence in the Sixties. He’s been lower-key for the past couple decades, but he’s still a vigorous and funny and politically-driven man. Chances are many of you will not remember him, or have not seen much of him. Before I tell my story about him, I urge you to watch him in action recently, talking about politics in the US today.

In the late Sixties, I was active in a store-front urban action organization in one of our rustier Rust-Belt cities. We knew a guy who knew a guy who claimed to know Dick Gregory. All right, loud-mouth, prove it: get us in to talk to DG himself.

A week later, four or five of us piled into a car and drove to New York where Dick Gregory gave us a couple hours of time, and promised to help us get money and publicity for our inner-city advancement campaign.

A week after that, I picked him up at the airport early one morning, drove him around to interviews and appearances and speeches, and dropped him off around midnight at his hotel. Here is what we set up for him.

  • interview with a newspaper reporter
  • two TV interviews
  • a radio interview
  • a fund-raiser at a local restaurant (DG was on one of his many fasts at the time, so we charged people $25 each and gave them an empty plate and a glass of water) which attracted more than a hundred academics and professionals
  • speeches to
    • a nascent black-power group
    • a graduate-students political science seminar
    • a late-night college party

Every one of those was distinctive in its way, and was different from the others. As we drove to each one, Dick asked me what the next group was, what kind of room he’d be in, and how many people might be there. Then he’d go in and do his thing.

His thing was communication, and humor was just the window dressing. Here’s where the commentary on today comes in: He talked to each of those individuals or groups in their own style, their own vernacular, their own tone. He was half a dozen different people over the course of that day, and slipped in and out of his masks without a hitch.

The point: I’ve never met, and don’t expect to meet, a white man who could do that. White men have never had to do it.

Maybe this doesn’t prove anything about Barack Obama, but I think it’s one more step toward understanding his background, and who he has become. It’s one more step in helping to understand the connection he’s had with Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

I’ve been collecting information and commentary on Obama and Wright; there’s enough of it out there already to fill a small library. I think that remains the dominant issue in the Democratic campaign. It is not the most important issue, but it is the one which has received and will continue to receive the most publicity.

I hope tomorrow to put the better — or worse — ones into a coherent post, and then let the topic go for a while. With luck, forever. But as I just said, while it is not even close to the most important issue, it will remain the most controversial.


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