Dick Gregory (Arrest of)
In February 1964, African-American satirist Dick Gregory was jailed in the Jefferson County Jail in Pine Bluff for attempting to eat at a segregated restaurant. Gregory, an internationally celebrated entertainer who rose to prominence in the 1960s, was also actively engaged in the civil rights movement. He was arrested a number of times in demonstrations and protests, although his arrest in Arkansas has been much less publicized.
The events leading to Gregory’s arrest began on Sunday night, February 16, 1964, when he was in Pine Bluff talking to members of the Pine Bluff Movement, a local organization affiliated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). 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 (Pulaski County) 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 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 twenty-four-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 customer-free café, but the waitress, Jewell Nugent, told them that Gregory needed to go to the rear “where Negroes are served.”
Hearing the waitress’s comments, Gregory felt life imitate art. One of 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.” Jefferson County sheriff Harold Norton arrested both men 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 the next day, Gregory signaled his intent to stay in jail until his trial the following week.
Demonstrations at the café continued over the following few days, leading to further arrests. On Friday, Gregory posted bond and was released. Governor Orval Faubus—who was facing Winthrop Rockefeller in the upcoming 1964 election and was perhaps seeking to exploit a racial crisis like the desegregation of Little Rock Central High—exacerbated the situation, describing it as “threatening” and “riotous.” The governor had amassed state troopers in the area, and they were readying a riot plan.
On Saturday, Gregory left Pine Bluff in an effort to calm the escalating situation. In a brokered compromise, café owner Ray Watson and the Pine Bluff Movement agreed to a seventy-two-hour truce. Watson agreed to keep his café 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 and Hansen were found guilty as charged and were each handed a $500 fine and a six-month prison sentence. Both men were released on $2,500 bonds. The following day, Watson successfully sought a restraining order from the court, banning Gregory and Pine Bluff Movement members from demonstrating at his café. He reopened for business on Thursday afternoon.
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 Café. Another Court ruling released over 3,000 people—including Gregory, Hansen, and Pine Bluff Movement demonstrators—from their fines and sentences resulting from anti-segregation protests.
Gregory died in 2017 at the age of eighty-four.
For additional information:
Kirk, John A. “When Pine Bluff Jailed Dick Gregory.” Arkansas Times, September 14, 2017, pp. 12–13.
Wallach, Jennifer, and John A. Kirk, eds. Arsnick: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Arkansas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2011.
John A. Kirk
University of Arkansas at Little Rock
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