Remembering My Friend, Richard Pryor

Armstrong Williams
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Posted: Dec 12, 2005 6:05 AM
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 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?

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 reign 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 a 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 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.