Skip to comments.Remembering My Friend Richard Pryor
Posted on 12/13/2005 4:04:38 PM PST by flixxx
Remembering My Friend Richard Pryor Armstrong Williams Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2005 It was January 1983 when I came face to face with Richard Pryor at Washington's Dulles airport. He was in town to give the first straight speech of his life, to memorialize the death and contributions of the great civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was an intense moment; just a few months earlier the Jester had come close to death after free-basing cocaine in the basement of his California home.
When he arrived in Washington, one could readily see where his face had been burnt and his skin had been charred by his deadly drug habit. The press ran headlines of condemnation and there was talk that Pryor would never recover, would never rise again to achieve the stature his comedy had once commanded on the worldwide stage. During his heyday he had no peer, and even today no one has come close to his genius, his imagination. He commanded a fan base around the world with a comedy that was daring, engaging and clearly spoke from great pain.
During the latter part of 1982, as a 23-year-old presidential appointee in Secretary John Block's Department of Agriculture, I was approached about coordinating the department's Black History Month celebration. I was a naive, wide-eyed kid from the tobacco fields of South Carolina, who had been mentored by the state's legendary senator, J. Strom Thurmond. At the time, Pryor's fall from grace was one of the most prominent stories of the year, especially given that he had become one of the most celebrated and wealthy American entertainers in the country.
As I did my research, I found that Pryor had never led a serious dialogue in his life, had given no lectures besides his cutting-edge, controversial comic performances on stage. He was hardly associated with the civil rights movement. He told me that his only contribution to the movement was his participation in the Poor People's march.
In the early years of the Reagan administration, the president was consistently labeled as out of touch and unsympathetic to black people. I wondered, what if Richard Pryor could come to Washington and, from the depths of his own pain, give a heartfelt speech on civil rights and the legacy of Dr. King?
I started to go through the Yellow Pages and directory assistance. I made 41 calls; I did not know anyone with access to Pryor or his management team. The 42nd call came to me. His lawyer Terry Giles had heard that I was trying to reach Pryor. Giles was intrigued, but concerned. How would the administration be perceived by having a controversial comedian speak during Black History Month? How would his client be received? Pryor was not in the best mental or emotional state at the time, and he could ill afford another national incident in the press.
I assured him that if done correctly, both Pryor and the administration would benefit. Giles and Pryor, for some reason, trusted me and made only one request: that the Reagans hold a reception at the White House in honor of Black History Month with Richard Pryor as their special guest.
There was concern within the Department of Agriculture as well, and many tried to sink the program. Yet there were allies. Sam Cornelius at the Department of Agriculture fought tirelessly on my behalf, and my mentor, Senator Thurmond, showed great confidence in me by asking the Department of Agriculture and the White House to give me free rein with the program. He assured them that I would come through.
Senator Thurmond also called me to his office and said: "Young man, I will support you on this, but you better come through. If this fails, you'll be fired, the president will look bad, and you will not be welcomed back in this town for a very long time."
The rest is history. Pryor gave the first and only straight speech of his life before thousands. The story was broadcast on every major network and every major newspaper around the world. The following day the Washington Post ran the headline "The Jester Weeps." President Reagan entertained Richard Pryor and hundreds of guests in a ceremony at the White House honoring Black History Month.
Pryor was visibly moved. He had been, so recently, at the lowest point of his life, and then, so suddenly, to be in the White House for the first time, and to be there to honor the Reverend King; he began to weep, and then President Reagan hugged him and could not hold back his own tears. I will never forget that moment.
Pryor's testament was so moving that day, and the experience for him so powerful, that eventually he found the strength to return to the stage, and America found the heart to welcome him back.
Now Richard has passed. He lived his last years in constant pain, yet the terrible suffering wrought by multiple sclerosis never extinguished his smile, never conquered his comic wit. For Richard knew, perhaps he had always known, that though our lives are touched by tragedy, through laughter, together, we revitalize our spirits and find strength enough for the new day.
Never knew this. Thank you for posting it.
I vaguely recall Pryor visiting the White House, but no specifics...I was happy to find this as well.
I loved Richard Pryor. There was something so human about him. He talked about the things he'd been through open an honestly, he laid bare his soul and let us laugh with him at his own folleys. He was a flawed human being, as we all are, and he was open and honest about it in such a way that was really an inspiration.
I am truly sad the last years of his life were they way they were. He is an icon of my youth, I'm not sure if there will ever be another one like him.
He provided top-notch entertainment for countless people, yet he suffered so much in life, and I sincerely hope he is in God's hands now.
Long live "Mudbone"!
bump a worthwhile read. Ahhh, Freerepublic: unique amongst all the internet. V's wife.
Armstrong is pretty bad with dates. Pryor burned himself in 1980.
Many Freepers can't see beyond his "dirty word" act, but he was a very funny and humble man.
Good news is welcomed here too. That was moving.
Here is a similar piece Williams wrote in 2004 with some other details of the event.....
Remembrances of Reagan
Monday, June 7, 2004
I first met Ronald Reagan when he was campaigning for president in 1980. I was the student government association president at South Carolina State University and was in attendance at a political rally organized by Reagan confidantes Lee Atwater and Senator Strom Thurmond. Both had been gracious enough to mentor me. During the campaign, they assured me that if Reagan won, I would have a government appointment waiting for me.
On May 11, 1981 I began my appointment at the Department of Agriculture in Washington, DC. The Department had no idea what to do with this twenty-one-year-old young kid who had been deposited at their doorstep. So they put me in charge of coordinating their 1982 Black History Month celebration. At the time, Reagan was being labeled anti-black, anti-poor, anti-civil rights. In particular, the Republicans were getting flack for not reaching out to the traditional civil rights organizations.
At the time the newspapers were studding their headlines about Richard Pryor setting himself on fire while freebasing cocaine. Something compelled me to look beyond the drug incident. I discovered that Pryor had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King at the poor people's march and had given back significantly to the community. I got in touch with Pryor's attorney, Terry Giles, who set up a conference call. After which, Pryor agreed to participate on the condition that he get to meet with President Reagan following the event.
People in Pryor's camp were hesitant at first. They thought the administration was simply trotting Pryor on stage in order to deflect criticism about their indifference to black Americans. At the same time the White House was cautious because they feared he might use the occasion to launch into one of the vulgar tirades that was a staple of his stand up act.
Nothing could be further from Pryor's mind. He told me it was the first time anyone had asked him to deliver a serious speech. Having marched with Martin Luther King, Pryor was deeply sensible about the gravity of the occasion. He saw this as an opportunity to shed his clown persona and honor the legacy of Dr. King by speaking about something that was of importance to all Americans.
That was good enough for President Reagan, who expressed to Senator Thurmond how much he was looking forward to having Richard Pryor as his guest at the White House Black History Month reception. Senator Thurmond passed the good news along to me, with one important addendum: if this blew up, I would be out of a job. Thankfully, I was too naive to understand the possible repercussions of what I was doing.
When Richard Pryor arrived in D.C., he hugged me and said, "Thank you for honoring me, I look forward to meeting President Reagan. When everyone else was dumping on me because of my problems, you guys reached out. I am grateful." The next day Pryor strolled out to the atrium at the Department of Agriculture. Over 10,000 people were in attendance. An official from the White House gave me a wink. I smiled back.
The next day, the Washington Post style section ran a headline reading, "The Jester Weeps." At the White House reception, President Reagan gave me a bear hug and thanked me for making it happen. He then hugged Richard Pryor, and confided that he and Nancy had been praying for him. Reagan paused for a moment, then leaned forward and said, "Thank you for remembering the legacy of Dr. King, because he showed us all how to get along as God's children."
Pryor and Reagan then exchanged anecdotes first about Hollywood, and then about Dr. King. Reagan talked about how he cried when he heard that Dr. King had been assassinated. Pryor's eyes swelled with tears. President Reagan, Senator Thurmond and Richard Pryor stood there for quite some time, leaning forward in conversation, heads rolling in laughter.
I'll never forget that scene. Pryor was not a traditional spokesperson for the black community. Senator Thurmond and President Reagan were pretty uncommon in their own right. Together they were a testament to people with different backgrounds and diverse perspectives coming together to haul us all along as a community.
Gawd I miss the Gipper, he uniquely turned this country into one for just a while.....oh how the libs hated him, but they couldn't attack him directly.
"That Nigger's Crazy" is my all-time favorite comedy album.
Every Black guy in comedy has ripped off Pryor's material, especially his patented "White Guy" voice.
"Pass the potatoes."
You are a mean little person.
Very nice piece. I really liked Richard Pryor in the movies he made. He was a very natural comic. I never saw his acts as a comedian but do remember when the gave the speech that Armstrong is talking about.
Ronald Reagan is why I will always be a conservative. RIP Richard, you were a helluva storyteller.
I just crack up when I hear Richard imitating how white people cuss. Richard made it possible for blacks and whites to laugh at, and with each other.
He did it to himself and it was funny. Don't be so candy-@**ed (you OR a mod)
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