Freedom in Laughter

Dick Gregory, Bill Cosby, and the Civil Rights Movement

By Malcolm Frierson

Subjects: African American Studies, American History, American Culture, Social And Cultural History, Social Movements
Series: SUNY series in African American Studies
Paperback : 9781438479064, 186 pages, January 2021
Hardcover : 9781438479071, 186 pages, August 2020

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Table of contents

List of Illustrations

Introduction: Humor Matters

1. The Green Room

2. Coming to the Stage

3. All of the Lights

photo gallery following page 68

4. Black Comedy, Black Power

5. Edutainment


Works Cited

Analyzes the dynamic period in which Dick Gregory and Bill Cosby moved African American professional stand-up comedy from the chitlin’ circuit to the mainstream.


In this groundbreaking book, Malcolm Frierson moves comedy from the margins to the center of the American Civil Rights Movement. Freedom in Laughter reveals how stand-up comedians Dick Gregory and Bill Cosby used their increasing mainstream success to advance political issues, albeit differently. Frierson first explores Gregory's and Cosby's adolescent experiences in St. Louis and Philadelphia and then juxtaposes the comedians' diverging humor and activism. The fiery Gregory focused on the politics of race, winning him credibility at the expense of his career in the long term, while Cosby focused on the politics of respectability, catapulting him to television and film stardom. Although militant blacks repeatedly questioned Cosby's image, Frierson suggests he and Gregory both carried the aims of the black freedom struggle. With an epilogue that considers the comedians' post–civil rights era trajectories, this book is accessibly written and filled with Gregory's and Cosby's original material, appealing to academics, history buffs, and anyone interested in American popular culture.

Malcolm Frierson is Associate Professor of History at North Lake College.


"Frierson highlights the connections between artistic expression and activism as a mutual exchange in the process of continuing to enlighten, inspire, and transform a painfully divided society. The book interrogates the stirring contrast between humor and hurt through an analytical vantage point that often transcended race in an era largely defined by the separation of blacks and whites. " — Aaron X. Smith, Temple University