Dick Gregory’s lifetime of accomplishments such as marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala., being the first Black comedian to sit on the “Tonight Show” couch and even attempting a mayoral run represents a unique and groundbreaking intersection of comedy and politics.
The Black satirist, who used comedic timing as a vehicle for political and social commentary when stand-up comedy was largely segregated, died Saturday at the age of 84 in Washington, D.C.
His son Christian confirmed his death in a social media post on Saturday. In afollow-up post, he explained that a week ago his father fell ill from a severe bacterial infection and checked into Sibley Memorial Hospital. He then succumbed to a bifurcated thoracic aortic aneurysm.
Gregory was born in St. Louis, Mo., in 1932, the second of six children. Growing up in poverty, he learned at an early age how to use humor to deflect bullies. Gregory’s career in activism began in high school, where he protested against segregated schools.
He earned a track scholarship to Southern Illinois University and excelled in the sport.But he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1954. Gregory’s stand-up comedy was a hit at an Army base talent show, and he eventually became a part of the Army’s division of entertainment.
After serving in the military he relocated to Chicago where he met his wife, Lillian. He was mostly performing in front of largely Black audiences when Playboy founder Hugh Hefner saw his act and hired the comedian to perform at his nightclub in 1961.
“I hate to see any baseball player having trouble,” Gregory said in one of his jokes. “‘Cause that’s a great sport for my people. That is the only sport in the world where a Negro can shake a stick at a white man and it won’t start no riot.”
Gregory became one of the first Black stand-up comedians to find success with white audiences in the early 1960s, paving the way for comedians like Richard Pryor.
“Dick Gregory was one of the first Black comedians who really crossed over into the mainstream, and did so in a way where he kept his integrity,” comedian W. Kamau Bellsaidin CNN’s “The History of Comedy.”
“There was not a sense that he became less culturally Black or less committed to his own race because he played white rooms.”
Also in 1961, Gregory made history when he appeared on Jack Paar’s “Tonight Show.” When agreeing to do the show, he demanded that he’d be invited to sit on the couch to chat with Paar. Gregory became the first Black comedian to do so. He then became a recurring guest.
But as his stardom was rising in the entertainment world in the early 1960s, he also became a visible supporter of the civil rights movement. He marched with Martin Luther King Jr. at Selma, where he and his wife were briefly jailed, he told the Chicago Tribune. He also joined King on Aug. 28, 1963, at the March on Washington. Gregory was also friends with Malcolm X and Medgar Evers.
In 1964, Gregory co-wrote with Robert Lipsyte the book “nigger: An Autobiography.
“So this word ‘nigger’ was one of the most well-used words in America, particularly among Black folks,” Gregorysaid in an interview with NPR.
“And I said, `Well, let’s pull it out the closet. Let’s lay it out here. Let’s deal with it. Let’s dissect it.’ Now the problem I have today is people call it the N-word. It should never be called the N-word. You see, how do you talk about a swastika by using another term”
Gregory had an unsuccessful run for mayor of Chicago in a 1967 election. A joke he made during a comedic set in the early60s foreshadowed his run for the presidency in 1968 under the Freedom and Peace Party.He was on the ballot in eight states andreceived 47,133 votes, according to NPR.
“You heard what Bobby Kennedy said about eight weeks ago, he said, ‘Thirty years from this year a Negro can become president,'” Gregory said in 1961. “So treat me right or I’ll get in there and raise taxes on you.
“Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t mind paying income tax if I knew it was going to a friendly country.”
Gregory left stand-up comedy in the early 1970s to spend more time on political activism. He became a noted university lecturer. The comedian was opposed to the Vietnam War and embarked on a hunger strike. He also went on hunger strikes to bring awareness to issues such as apartheid in South Africa, police brutality and women’s rights.
In the 1980s, he turned his focus to promoting healthy eating. Gregory adopted a vegetarian diet and examined issues related to diet within Black communities. He became a diet food entrepreneur.
Gregory returned to stand-up in the 1990s, and at age 84 he was still performing. His Instagram page is filled with promotions of upcoming club appearances around the country.
The comedian and activist still attempted to heal the world by sharing wisdom.He stated the following in a March 26 post:
“Love will always be triumphant over hate. I know I will not be here forever, nor do I desire to be. I have seen progress like most cannot appreciate because they were not there to bear witness. I dedicated my life to the movement.
“By doing so, I never thought I’d still be here. So many of my friends are not here. They were cut down by a system of hatred and evil. If they were here, they’d see the progress that I see. The reality is far from perfect, but profoundly better than what daily reality was for my generation.”
Gregory is survived by his wife Lillian of Washington, D.C., and 10 children.
Many paid tribute to the comedian on social media:
Rev Jesse Jackson Sr (@RevJJackson) August 20, 2017
Dick Gregory, Truth teller, make you fall on your face laughing Comedian, health man before it was cool & crazy expensive unapologetic
Whoopi Goldberg (@WhoopiGoldberg) August 20, 2017
Dick Gregory was a friend and a great inspiration for my entire life ,his energy is now absorbed back into the whole he lives thru us
Russell Simmons (@UncleRUSH) August 20, 2017