Dick Gregory, the groundbreaking comedian, crusader for social justice, health food advocate, presidential candidate, and conspiracy theorist died Saturday, August 19, in Washington, DC. He was 84 years old.
Mr. Gregory, who began his career performing stand-up comedy in segregated clubs to black audiences, was the first black comedian to cross the color barrier. Performing for white audiences beginning in 1961, his politically-tinged brand comedy slyly mocked bigotry and racial hatred.
Mr. Gregory’s break came one evening in Chicago in 1961 when he filled in last minute for comedian Irwin Corey at the Playboy Club where he won over a white audience. Afterward, the club gave him a three-year contract and turned him into a headline act.
While he was quoted as saying “Humor can no more find the solution to race problems than it can cure cancer,” Mr. Gregory’s career was on a parallel track with the civil rights movement and he was able to win over white audiences by illustrating the ridiculousness of racism through humor.
Imagine hearing a black comedian telling this joke at the time of lunch counter sit-ins in the early 1960s:
“I sat in at a lunch counter for nine months. When they finally integrated, they didn’t have what I wanted.”
Or this, about trying to be served in a restaurant:
“The waiter said, `We don’t serve colored people here.’ I said, `That’s all right, I don’t eat colored people. Just bring me a whole fried chicken.’”
As his popularity increased, Mr. Gregory appeared on national television programs, released comedy albums and wrote books, including his 1964 autobiography, nigger!, which included the following dedication: “Dear Momma —Wherever you are, if ever you hear the word “nigger” again, remember they are advertising my book.”
Throughout the 1960s, Mr. Gregory was a tirelessly outspoken public figure in the Civil Rights Movement and the fight against racism. He was arrested many times, including in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 where he suffered a beating at the hands of the local police.
In 1968, Dick Gregory ran as a write-in candidate for president, receiving won a over 47,000 votes.
He was also an active participant in national protests against the war in Vietnam, often using fasting as his form of non-violent resistance. His list of causes were many, including women’s rights, the anti-Apartheid movement and the struggle against police brutality.
Mr. Gregory was an early advocate of healthy food and healthy eating, developing his own “Bahamian Diet,” a powder supplement of vegan ingredients. He worked closely with obese people in their struggle to lose weight.
He was also a longtime conspiracy theorist, beginning with his questioning of the Warren Commission’s findings on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Later, he would raise questions regarding the official findings into the killing of Martin Luther King, Jr., the 9/11 Commission, and even the moon landing.
Remembrances of Dick Gregory posted to social media sites include the following, from the Reverend Jesse Jackson and fellow comedian Chris Rock:
“He taught us how to laugh. He taught us how to fight. He taught us how to live,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson tweeted. “Dick Gregory was committed to justice. I miss him already.”
“We lost a king,” Chris Rock posted on Instagram. “They’ll never be another. Read his books. Look him up you won’t be disappointed. Unfortunately the America that produced Dick Gregory still exists. Rest In Peace Dick Gregory my hero.