Gregory, 78, was instrumental in desegregating his university, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and eventually landed a lucrative $5,000 gig as a comedian at the Chicago Playboy Club in the early 1960s - a predominately white nightclub whose acts were shown on national television. But Gregory eventually left the deal after King asked him to help the growing Civil Rights Movement. He participated in almost all of the major and minor marches, demonstrations and rallies of the civil rights era and is famous for once stating: "We will march through your dogs! And if you get some elephants, we'll march through them. And bring on your tigers and we'll march through them."
At Wednesday's event, titled The Movement: A Legacy to Embrace, a Future to Form, which nearly 600 residents attended, Gregory joked about the famous statement by saying, "Y'all knew I used to be an alcoholic, right? I read those words I said in the Chicago Tribune, and I haven't had a drink since."
Gregory described his and others' efforts during the movement as trying to make the world one of peace and kindness, and stressed admiration for King's approach to prejudice.
"Dr. King said, 'I'm willing to die, but I'm not willing to kill.' And you could see love, you could see peace, and you could see gentleness in his eyes," Gregory said. "Y'all are supposed to have it easy. That's what we were there for...Once you prove it's possible, you don't have to start at the bottom."