Dick Gregory, who recently died at the age of 84, was a pioneering African-American satirist. Like many black entertainers in the 1960s, he used his celebrity to aid the cause of civil rights by drawing attention to the absurdities of segregation and racial discrimination. Not only did Gregory do this by performing, writing books, giving lectures, and making media appearances, but he also climbed into the trenches.
Gregory campaigned for voting rights in Mississippi in 1962, he was arrested numerous times, including in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 and he was shot in the leg while trying to be a peacemaker during the 1965 Watts, Los Angeles uprising. And, in one of his lesser-known episodes of civil rights activism, in 1964 Gregory was thrown into the Jefferson County Jail in Pine Bluff for trying to eat in the whites-only section of a truck stop cafe.
The events leading to Gregory’s confinement began on Sunday night, Feb. 16, 1964, when he was in Pine Bluff talking to members of the Pine Bluff Movement, a local Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC—pronounced “snick”) affiliated organization. SNCC had established a foothold in Arkansas in October 1962 when it sent white civil rights worker Bill Hansen to help Philander Smith College students in Little Rock organize a sit-in movement. After demonstrations successfully brought white businessmen in the city to the negotiating table to end downtown segregation, Hansen moved to Pine Bluff to set up operations there. Hansen helped to mobilize black youth in Pine Bluff and used the city as SNCC’s headquarters to launch other initiatives in the Arkansas delta.
Gregory came to Pine Bluff from his hometown of Chicago to encourage civil rights activism. His appearance drew an audience of over 500 and he took to the stage for almost two-and-a-half hours, with the rally going well into the night. After it ended, Gregory and Hansen looked for a place to eat. A couple of black-owned restaurants they visited were already closed, since it was now the early hours of Monday morning. They then chanced upon the 24-hour Ray’s Truck Stop and Café on U.S. Highway 79, just north of the city limits in a predominantly black neighborhood. The two sat down in the customerless café, but the waitress, Jewell Nugent, told them that Gregory needed to go to the rear “where Negroes are served.” Gregory, not for the first time, felt life imitate art. One his most famous routines involved exactly the scenario he now faced, with a waitress telling him “We don’t serve colored people here,” and Gregory retorting, “That’s alright, I don’t eat colored people. Just bring me a whole fried chicken.”
This time, it was Hansen who spoke up first. “No, he’s my friend,” he told Nugent. “If he can’t eat up here with me, then he ain’t gonna eat.” The waitress, and the truck stop and café co-owner Ray Watson, 33, who ran the business with his mother, decided to press charges. Jefferson County Sheriff Harold Norton arrested both Gregory and Hansen under a state law that made it illegal not to leave the place of a business when requested to do so by the owner. They were transported to the segregated Jefferson County Jail in Pine Bluff.
At a hearing in Judge Wilton E. Steed’s Municipal Court later that day, a trial date was set for the following week on Tuesday, Feb. 25. “I ain’t leaving this town until that place is integrated,” Gregory told reporters, stating his intention to refuse bond and to remain in jail. On Monday evening, Rev. Ben Grinage, a Methodist minister and chair of the Pine Bluff Movement, began to mobilize local youth for demonstrations. A total of 40 young people turned up ready and willing to go to the truck stop, but Grinage told them to wait until the following day so that he could arrange enough bond money to free any of them if need be. “Be ready to go to jail,” he told them. “We ask you to commit yourselves to stay as long as necessary.”
When demonstrators arrived at the truck stop cafe on Tuesday evening, they found that it had already been closed in anticipation of their arrival. The demonstrators picketed the cafe for a couple of hours. Grinage told reporters that, “We’re satisfied if it’s closed.” After all, the cafe could not practice segregation if it was not open for business. On Wednesday evening, 40 demonstrators turned up at the reopened cafe. They were all arrested and jailed. On Thursday evening, 25 demonstrators turned up at the cafe. Immediately, Ray Watson closed the doors to prevent their entry and ushered his existing 20 white customers out of the kitchen door.
On Friday, Gregory posted bond and was released. He was critical about his time in the jail, telling reporters, “The Health Department man would have to clean that place up and disinfect it before he could go in there to condemn it.” He described conditions as “unhuman” and “unbelievable,” likening it to “somebody’s secret torture chamber.”
Gregory informed the press that he had already spoken twice with U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who had promised to investigate. He remained adamant that he would not leave Pine Bluff until the truck stop cafe was desegregated. Hansen and 17 of the 40 other arrested demonstrators remained in jail.
The main reason for Gregory posting bond was the antics of Gov. Orval Faubus. Faubus was busy inflaming the situation, describing it as “threatening” and “riotous.” The governor had amassed state troopers in the area and they were readying a riot plan. Facing a credible Republican opponent in the shape of Winthrop Rockefeller in the 1964 election, there were fears that Faubus was looking to repeat his earlier rabble-rousing at Little Rock’s Central High School and create another expedient racial crisis to exploit. White business leaders in Pine Bluff were alarmed by Faubus’s rhetoric. A Pine Bluff Commercial editorial denounced the governor for using the city’s “trouble for political gain.”
On Saturday, Gregory left Pine Bluff altogether in an effort to calm the escalating situation. “Man, this thing has got way out of proportion,” he told reporters. “There ain’t nothing wrong going on here but Faubus might just make folks think there is. I knew it was getting out of hand when I called my wife in Chicago last night and she told me it was on the front page.” In a brokered compromise, Ray Watson and the Pine Bluff Movement agreed to a 72-hour truce. Watson agreed to keep his cafe closed and the Pine Bluff Movement agreed not to picket. All the remaining demonstrators in the county jail, including Hansen, were released on bonds paid for by local African American businessmen and professionals.
On Tuesday, Gregory flew back into Pine Bluff. He caught a commercial flight from Chicago to Memphis and then rented a private plane at $10 per hour for the last leg of his journey. Gregory was just over half-an-hour late for his trial, earning him a $50 fine from Judge Steed. The courtroom was already packed with a mainly black audience. In just under two hours, Gregory and Hansen were found guilty as charged and were each handed a $500 fine and a six-month prison sentence, the maximum allowed under state law. “When I heard that ‘six months’ I thought, ‘What am I gonna do with that pilot?’” Gregory later quipped. “He’s out there waitin’ on me.” Pine Bluff attorney and NAACP state president George Howard, who represented both men in court, indicated that they would appeal the decision. Both Gregory and Hansen were released on $2,500 bonds. Gregory reckoned that the time he had already spent in jail had cost him $42,000 in bookings he had been forced to cancel.
The following day, Ray Watson successfully sought a restraining order from the court, banning Gregory and Pine Bluff Movement members from demonstrating at his cafe. He reopened for business on Thursday afternoon. On March 19, the other demonstrators who had been arrested were all fined $500 each and sentenced to 30 days in jail. All posted bond pending appeal.
The episode was finally brought to a close later that summer when the U.S. Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act that made segregation illegal in public accommodations and facilities. Subsequent U.S. Supreme Court rulings made it clear that the definition of public accommodations and facilities could be extended to private businesses, like Ray’s Truck Stop and Cafe, too. Another Court ruling freed over 3,000 people, including Gregory, Hansen and Pine Bluff Movement demonstrators from their fines and sentences resulting from anti-segregation protests.
Dick Gregory’s appearance in Pine Bluff was by no means his last in Arkansas. He returned numerous times both in his capacity as an entertainer and as an activist. But apparently his visit to the Jefferson County Jail in 1964 convinced Gregory that it should be his first and last experience of incarceration in the state.
John A. Kirk is the George W. Donaghey Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Joel E. Anderson Institute on Race and Ethnicity at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.