Dick Gregory, who rose from poverty to become a groundbreaking comedian and civil rights activist, dies at 84
Dick Gregory, who became the first black stand-up comic to break the color barrier in major nightclubs in the early 1960s, a decade in which he satirized segregation and race relations in his act and launched his lifetime commitment to civil rights and other social justice issues, died Saturday. He was 84.
His death was confirmed on his official social media accounts by his family.
For the record:8:05 p.m. Aug. 19, 2017
An earlier version of this story said Gregory died Sunday. He died Saturday.
“It is with enormous sadness that the Gregory family confirms that their father, comedic legend and civil rights activist Mr. Dick Gregory departed this earth tonight in Washington, DC.,” his son Christian Gregory wrote.
Even before the confirmation from the family, Rev. Jesse Jackson, a longtime friend of Gregory’s, had memorialized him in a tweet:
“He taught us how to laugh. He taught us how to fight.He taught us how to live. Dick Gregory was committed to justice. I miss him already.”
Steve Jaffe, Gregory’s friend and publicist for more than 50 years, told a Times reporter Saturday night that the comedian died of heart failure. He said Gregory was touring earlier this month on the East Coast and was supposed to be in Los Angeles in a week.
“He was one of the sweetest smartest, most loving people one could ever know,” Jaffe said. “I just hope God is ready for some outrageously funny times.”
In a life that began in poverty in St. Louis during the Depression, the former Southern Illinois University track star became known as an author, lecturer, nutrition guru and self-described agitator who marched, ran and fasted to call attention to issues ranging from police brutality to world famine.
An invitation from civil rights leader Medgar Evers to speak at voter registration rallies in Jackson, Miss., in 1962 launched Gregory into what he called “the civil rights fight.”
He was frequently arrested for his activities in the ’60s, and once spent five days in jail in Birmingham, Ala. after joining demonstrators in 1963 at the request of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
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Gregory, who was shot in the leg while trying to help defuse the Watts riots in 1965, made a failed run for mayor of Chicago as a write-in candidate in 1967. A year later, he ran for president as a write-in candidate for the Freedom and Peace Party, a splinter group of the Peace and Freedom Party. Hunter S. Thompson was one of his most vocal supporters.
In the late ’60s, he began going on 40-day fasts to protest the Vietnam War.
In 1980, impatient with President Carter’s handling of the Iranian hostage crisis, he flew to Iran and began a fast, had a “ceremonial visit” with revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and met with the revolutionary students inside the embassy. After four and a half months in Iran, his weight down to 106 pounds, he returned home.
But before Dick Gregory the activist, there was Dick Gregory the groundbreaking comedian.
He was a struggling 28-year-old stand-up comic in Chicago who had launched his career in small black clubs when he received a life-changing, last-minute phone call from his agent in January 1961: The prestigious Playboy Club in Chicago needed someone to fill in for comedian Irwin Corey on Sunday night.
Gregory was so broke he had to borrow a quarter from his landlord for bus fare downtown. Never mind that his audience turned out to be a convention of white frozen-food-industry executives from the South.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” Gregory said, coolly eyeing the audience. “I understand there are a good many Southerners in the room tonight. I know the South very well. I spent 20 years there one night. …
“Last time I was down South, I walked into this restaurant, and this white waitress came up to me and said: ‘We don’t serve colored people here.’ I said: ‘That’s all right, I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.’ ”
Despite having to deal with what he later described as “dirty, little, insulting statements” from some members of the audience, the heckling soon stopped as Gregory won them over with his provocatively funny but nonbelligerent satirical humor.
“Segregation is not all bad,” he said on stage. “Have you ever heard of a wreck where the people on the back of the bus got hurt?”
What was supposed to be a 55-minute show, Gregory later recalled, went on for about an hour and 40 minutes. And by the time he walked off stage, the audience gave him a thundering ovation.
He did so well, he was booked at the club for two weeks and then held over for several more.
Segregation is not all bad,” he said on stage. “Have you ever heard of a wreck where the people on the back of the bus got hurt?
— Dick Gregory
That February, a Time magazine writer who caught Gregory’s act at the Playboy Club painted a glowing portrait of a man who, with “intelligence, sophistication, and none of the black-voice buffoonery of Amos ’n’ Andy,” had “become the first Negro comedian to make his way into the nightclub big time.”
“What makes Gregory refreshing,” the writer observed, “is not only that he feels secure enough to joke about the trials and triumphs of his own race, but that he can laugh, in a sort of brotherhood of humor, with white men about their own problems, can joke successfully about the NAACP as well as the PTA.”
From his success at the Playboy Club, which a Newsweek writer later observed marked the death of Jim Crow “in the joke world,” Gregory’s career quickly snowballed.
Jack Paar read about him in Time and invited him on his late-night show. That led to a booking at the fashionable Blue Angel in New York City. The New York Times soon ran a profile of Gregory, as did Esquire magazine later in the year. He also signed a contract for his first comedy album, “In Living Black and White.”
“Greg opened the door,” comedian and future TV star Redd Foxx told the New York Times in 1961. “Somebody had to be first. There’s room for all of us. He can’t work Pittsburgh and Glocca Morra the same night.”
With his three-button black suit, a swirl of smoke from his ever-present cigarette and his unhurried delivery, Gregory radiated what author Gerald Nachman described as “positive, cool vibes” on stage.
Gregory “behaved as if he belonged up there, unapologetically, as if his presence was inevitable,” Nachman wrote In his 2003 book “Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s.”
“He might have been seething underneath, but on the surface he generally appeared bemused by the hostilities and hypocrisies of the racial divide,” wrote Nachman. “Here or there, a joke might betray a hint of bitterness, like his line about an integrated swimming pool that had a blind lifeguard.”
When he hit in 1961, Gregory once said, “there wasn’t a healthy race joke in America. They were all derogatory to one race or another.” But he “gave the country a new way out — healthy racial jokes.”
And once he got audiences laughing, he found, “I could say anything.”
“This isn’t a revolution of black against white; this is a revolution of right against wrong,” he told one audience. “And right has never lost.”
His act, however, wasn’t all about race relations.
“I been readin’ so much about cigarettes and cancer, I quit readin’,” he observed on stage.
On the bellicose Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev: “Wouldn’t it be funny if Khrushchev didn’t really hate us, but his interpreter did?”
Gregory became so well-known that in 1964, E.P. Dutton published his autobiography, the provocatively titled “nigger.” He dedicated the book to his late mother: “Wherever you are, if ever you hear [that] word … again, remember they are advertising my book.” In all, he wrote five books, one a cookbook.
By then, Gregory’s high-profile involvement in the civil rights movement was overshadowing his comedy career.
His activism took a huge financial toll on Gregory in lost bookings and the cost of travel and other expenses. But as he put it: “I found somethin’ that made me feel better inside than comedy.”
Gregory, who became a vegetarian and gave up drinking and smoking, decided in 1973 to no longer work in venues that sold alcohol. In 1984, he founded Health Enterprises Inc., a company that distributed weight-loss products, including a powdered diet mix, Dick Gregory’s Slim Safe Bahamian Diet.
In between writing books and speaking on health and social issues with fiery passion on the lecture circuit, Gregory continued his activism.
In 2000, he protested police brutality in New York and Detroit and went to Kentucky to demand the hiring of black school principals.
A decade later, after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, he announced his plan to go on a 30-day fast to maintain public awareness of the need for ongoing Haitian relief.
As Gregory told Ebony magazine at the time: “I am still more inclined to go and march for a young man wrongfully killed in Harlem than do a gig at a university. Once the movement is in you, it’s there. It never leaves.”
Born in St. Louis on Oct. 12, 1932, he was the second of six children. Their father was often absent and finally deserted the family.
His mother, who cleaned the homes of wealthy white people and took care of their children, was a positive influence, telling her own children that “man has two ways out in life — laughing or crying. There’s more hope in laughing.”
Gregory, who shined shoes and did other odd jobs as a child, was a high school track star — he won the mile in 4:28 at an all-black Missouri state track meet — and was president of his graduating class.
He received an athletic scholarship to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where he became captain of the cross-country and track teams and the school’s fastest half-miler.
His education was interrupted in 1954 when he was drafted into the Army, where his wisecracks and nonmilitary demeanor earned him an ultimatum from a colonel: Either enter and win an open talent show at the service club or face a court-martial.
Gregory won the contest, with jokes such as explaining how the Army charged him $85 when he lost his rifle: “That’s why in the Navy, the captain always goes down with his ship.” After winning two more contests, he was placed in Special Services.
After his discharge in 1956, Gregory returned to Southern Illinois University. But he soon dropped out and moved to Chicago. He worked for a time at the post office — “I kept flipping the letters to Mississippi in the foreign slot,” he’d joke — and then at Ford Aircraft before landing a job as a comic-emcee in the lounge of a neighborhood bar on Chicago’s South Side.
In the audience one night was Lillian Smith, a young secretary at the University of Chicago, who became his wife and the mother of their 10 children (an 11th died in infancy). Gregory frequently said his wife was the spiritual core of his family, and his children his most devoted admirers.
In 2016, musician John Legend produced a one-man play on Gregory’s life, “Turn Me Loose.” Legend said he marveled at how fresh and relevant the comedian’s brand of humor of remained.
“It sounds like he’s aware of what’s happening now even though they were written so long ago,” Legend told the Boston Globe.
The lines were pure Gregory, funny, clever and dipped in sarcasm : “I never learned hate at home, or shame. I had to go to school for that.”
In addition to his wife, Gregory is survived by children Ayanna, Yohance, Stephanie, Miss, Christian, Michele, Pamela, Paula, Lynne and Gregory.
McLellan is a former Times staff writer.
Times staff writer Adam Elmahrek contributed to this report.
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