Comedian, civil rights activist who ‘answered the call’

Dick Gregory 1
Dick Gregory 1

LOS ANGELES (AP) – “Dick Gregory was an activist and creative genius who knew the struggle for liberation could only take flight if prominent individuals like himself leveraged their considerable influence, and joined the masses on the front lines of the dismantling of Jim Crow,” said NAACP Board Chairman Leon W. Russell. “We have lost one of the most important voices of social justice vigilance in the last fifty years. His intellectual style of humor defied racist stereotypes, eschewed buffoonery and provided white America rare insight into the unquestionable humanity of Black people.”

Dick Gregory, the comedian and activist and who broke racial barriers in the 1960s and used his humor to spread messages of social justice and nutritional health, has died.

As one of the first Black standup comedians to find success with White audiences, in the early 1960s, Gregory rose from an impoverished childhood in St. Louis to win a college track scholarship and become a celebrated satirist who deftly commented upon racial divisions at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement.

“Where else in the world but America,” he joked, “could I have lived in the worst neighborhoods, attended the worst schools, rode in the back of the bus, and get paid $5,000 a week just for talking about it?”

Richard Claxton Gregory was born in 1932, the second of six children. His father abandoned the family, leaving his mother poor and struggling. Though the family often went without food or electricity, Gregory’s intellect and hard work quickly earned him honors, and he attended the mostly white Southern Illinois University.

“In high school I was fighting being broke and on relief,” he wrote in his 1963 book. “But in college, I was fighting being Negro.”

He started winning talent contests for his comedy, which he continued in the Army. After he was discharged, he struggled to break into the standup circuit in Chicago, working odd jobs as a postal clerk and car washer to survive. His breakthrough came in 1961, when he was asked to fill in for another comedian at Chicago’s Playboy Club. His audience, mostly White Southern businessmen, heckled him with racist gibes, but he stuck it out for hours and left them howling.

That job was supposed to be a one-night gig, but lasted two months – and landed him a profile in Time magazine and a spot on The Tonight Show.

Vogue magazine, in February 1962, likened him to Will Rogers and Fred Allen: “bright and funny and topical … (with) a way of making the editorials in The New York Times seem the cinch stuff from which smash night-club routines are rightfully made.” “I’ve got to go up there as an individual first, a Negro second,” he said in Phil Berger’s book, The Last Laugh: The World of Stand-up Comics. “I’ve got to be a colored funny man, not a funny colored man.”

Gregory’s sharp commentary soon led him into civil rights activism, where his ability to woo audiences through humor helped bring national attention to fledgling efforts at integration and social equality for Blacks.

He frequently marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement.

He briefly sought political office, running unsuccessfully for mayor of Chicago in 1966 and U.S. president in 1968, when he got 200,000 votes as the Peace and Freedom party candidate. In the late ‘60s, he befriended Malcolm X and John Lennon and was among the voices heard on Lennon’s anti-war anthem Give Peace a Chance, recorded in the Montreal hotel room where Lennon and Yoko Ono were staging a “bed-in” for peace.

He also considered media magnate Cathy Hughes to a good friend and would speak on Radio One’s WOL-AM in the District of Columbia, as well as providing analysis of the Black struggle, and advocating African American economic self-help, health and nutrition.

“Dick was not just a comedian, author, entrepreneur and a dedicated foot soldier in the Civil Rights Movement,” stated Dr. Joseph E. Lowery, former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “His unique brand of social satire helped opened the eyes of people of all races around the world. Dick’s keen understanding of the need for Black people to have a voice led him to run for Mayor, President, and gave him the audacity to make significant sacrifices in his career in order to stand against, and call out hatred and oppression. When the people asked, ‘Who will bell the cat?’ Dick Gregory answered the call.”

Lowery co-founded the SCLC with King. An admirer of Mahatma Gandhi and King, Gregory embraced nonviolence and became a vegetarian and marathon runner.

He preached about the transformative powers of prayer and good health. Once an overweight smoker and drinker, he became a trim, energetic proponent of liquid meals and raw food diets. In the late 1980s, he developed and distributed products for the popular Slim-Safe Bahamian Diet.

When diagnosed with lymphoma in 2000, he fought it with herbs, exercise and vitamins. It went in remission a few years later.

He took a break from performing in comedy clubs, saying the alcohol and smoke in the clubs were unhealthy and focused on lecturing and writing more than a dozen books, including an autobiography and a memoir.

Gregory went without solid food for weeks to draw attention to a wide range of causes, including Middle East peace, American hostages in Iran, animal rights, police brutality, the Equal Rights Amendment for women and to support pop singer Michael Jackson, who was charged with sexual molestation in 2004.

His political passions were never far from his mind – and they hurt his comedy career. The nation was grappling with the Civil Rights Movement, and it was not at all clear that racial integration could be achieved. At protest marches, he was repeatedly beaten and jailed.

“We thought I was going to be a great athlete, and we were wrong, and I thought I was going to be a great entertainer, and that wasn’t it either. I’m going to be an American Citizen. First class,” he once said.

In 2009, Gregory was the keynote speech at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Georgia State Convention. Before the event, he gave a short speech thanking the activists that have been fighting for equality in the African American community. After stating “We’re the only generation on the planet that can start at the bottom and in one generation, make it to the top,” he encouraged parents to discipline their children in order to set them on the right path and push them to be better than them.

He closed by saying that those in the struggle for equality don’t have to have their names mentioned to be in the fight. However, it is good to keep all photographs and memorabilia to document history – increasing the value of the items and movement.

He remained active on the comedy scene until recently, when he fell ill and canceled an Aug. 9 show in San Jose, California, followed by an Aug. 15 appearance in Atlanta. On social media, he wrote that he felt energized by the messages from his well-wishers, and said he was looking to get back on stage because he had a lot to say about the racial tension brought on by the gathering of hate groups in Virginia.

“We have so much work still to be done, the ugly reality on the news this weekend proves just that,” he wrote.

Gregory died late Saturday in Washington, D.C. after being hospitalized for about a week, according to his son Christian Gregory. He had suffered a severe bacterial infection. He was 84 and is survived by his wife, Lillian, and 10 children.

“Our brother in the struggle, Dick Gregory will be sorely missed,” said NAACP interim President Derrick Johnson. “He, along with people like Harry Belafonte and Paul Robeson pioneered the use of celebrity as tool to push for social justice. Our community and nation owes a great debt to him for his decades of work to eradicate racism.”

Robyn H. Jimenez/The Dallas Examiner contributed to this report.

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