Dick Gregory was one of the freest black men I have ever known.
For American blacks of Gregory’s generation, freedom took some figuring out. But Gregory, who died Aug. 19 at age 84, knew that real freedom can come only from real truth. Sometimes he masked the truth with a joke, but you were always going to get the truth.
Gregory once told me about the time Martin Luther King Jr., with a tear in his eye, told Gregory that he knew he was soon going to die. Gregory, trying to lighten King’s load, shot right back, “Better you than me, Martin!”
But Gregory didn’t just tell jokes, he fought for justice. He was loved and respected by the lions of the civil rights movement because he wasn’t afraid to tarnish his brand by getting arrested right alongside them. There were many days he went fresh from his jail cell straight to the stage. And killed.
In so doing, he won the affection of black America and the respect of white America and somehow managed to make us all laugh.
Smiley is a TV host and author
This appears in the September 04, 2017 issue of TIME.