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 DC, 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.