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 once commanded on the world-wide 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 young twenty-three 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 but for 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?