Ground breaking comedian, activist, and entrepreneur Dick Gregory has died at the age of 84 in Washington, D.C. He had been admitted to a hospital there for a bacterial infection a week prior. The cause of death was heart failure.
Gregory was the bridge between brilliant but little known jokesters like Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley, and Slappy White, who toiled in the obscurity of the “chitlin circuit,” and the young Turks of the 1960s and 70s, Marla Gibbs, Reynaldo Ray, George Wallace, and Flip Wilson, who enjoyed professional success with the loosening of social conventions in the second half of the 20th century.
His commentary, observations, and satire (largely on the touchy subject of race) were a radical departure from the buffoonery and minstrel show antics typical of Black performers during the “Golden Age of Hollywood” and the early days of television. Segueing his success as a performer into an effect role as an activist in the Civil Rights era, he also became noted as an advocate for dieting and health foods, and as a conspiracy theorist.
Most importantly, he provided the template for comedy as an instrument for social criticisms in use by those who followed.
Just the funniest guy on the block
“I never believed in Santa Claus because I knew no White dude would come into my neighborhood after dark.”
Born in St. Louis, Mo. circa 1932, Richard Claxton Gregory cultivated his comedic skills as a buffer to the harassment he suffered at the hands of other kids in his neighborhood. In a household of six children reared by a single mother, he once joked that stray food falling from the table would be consumed before it hit the ground.
Especially impoverished and needy even in the downtrodden ghetto, he was the blunt of merciless teasing and torment by his sadistic peers. Eventually he found that humor could gain him allies in a hostile environment.
He attended Sumner High School, the first high school for African Americans west of the Mississippi River. While there, he embarked upon the first event of a lifelong push for social justice when he led a march to protest segregated schools. The travails of growing up were eased by the mentorship of the faculty there, and he found sanctuary in the cross country and track teams.
A standout middle distance runner, Gregory received scores of scholarship offers before choosing to compete as a half-miler and miler at Southern Illinois University, with a break in his studies when he was drafted into the army.
“The ability to poke humor at the scared cows of our society is a healthy thing. Dick is saying the right thing at the right time.”
Moving to Chicago to pursue the stand-up comedy he’d taken up in the military, he gained a foothold performing at the many nightclubs in that city’s “Black Belt,” the predominately African American south side. In those days, adventurous Caucasians would venture into the area to sample Black entertainers, in much the same way that well-heeled Whites would go “slumming” into Los Angeles’ South Central to partake of the standout musicians performing there.
One of those “outsiders” was a young magazine publisher and nightclub impresario named Hugh M. Hefner.
Gregory’s big “break” came when the socially progressive Playboy Club needed a replacement when their regularly scheduled comedian became ill. Once summoned, he made the trek that wintry night, in the driven snow, north to downtown Chicago’s “Loop,” the lily-White bastion of the Windy City’s upper crust.
Performing before a largely White audience of southern businessmen, he utilized the lessons of implementing humor in hostile environments of his youth to win the crowd over. A 55-minute set was extended to over an hour and a half, and thundering applause from the Dixie contingent.
Explaining the underlying secret for his success, he later quipped “…once you get a man to laugh with you, it’s hard for him to laugh at you.”
This one-nighter turned into a long-term engagement and cleared a path for Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Nipsey Russell and other performers.
Attracting the national spotlight, he became a fixture at major venues (before segregated audiences) across the country, in turn garnering an invite to Jack Paar’s “Tonight Show,” on NBC before mainstream White America.
“Where else in the world but America, 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?”
Gregory accepted an invitation to speak at a Jackson, Miss. rally for voting rights registration by activist Medgar Evers in 1962. Evers’ murder by White supremacists the next year galvanized Gregory’s commitment to the movement, and the next few years saw the beginning of a ritual of marches, protests, sit-ins, arrests, and incarcerations related to “the fight.”
One of his greatest performances for the cause took place locally in Los Angeles at the now demolished Wrigley Field on 42nd Place and Avalon Blvd. Appearing in support of Martin Luther King, Jr. with the likes of Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Paul Newman, the event entitled the “Freedom Rally,” drew some 35,000 people and generated a reported $75,000 for King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Gregory frequented Los Angeles regularly as part of his comedy tour. Among the venues he performed in were the “Total Experience” on Crenshaw Blvd., and the “Memory Lane Supper Club” on Santa Barbara (now Martin Luther King) Blvd. He also appeared outside the Black community at the folk music orientated “Ash Grove” on Melrose Ave., which closed in 1973.
In the course of his activism, he suffered a particularly vicious beating in Birmingham, Ala. (in 1963), and a superficial gunshot wound by a protester as he attempted to ease tensions during the Watts Uprising, circa 1965.
Always the provocateur, he penned the 1964 autobiography “N*gger,” an account of his impoverished childhood during the Depression. Defending the title, he insisted it be embraced for clinical study.
Instead of ignoring it or side-stepping it, he suggested “…let’s pull it out of the closet, let’s lay it out there, let’s deal with it, let’s dissect it.”
“It should never be called ‘the N-word.’”
A prolific author, he eventually produced more than 10 books on politics, nutrition, and history.
Moving on to legitimate politics, he launched a write-in campaign for mayor of Chicago against the incumbent, undisputed boss Richard J. Daley in 1967. Largely a symbolic act, it prepped him to run for president on the Peace and Freedom ticket the next year, earning 47,000 votes against the eventual winner, Richard Milhous Nixon.
Gregory’s interests and activism were not confined to civil rights.
“I hope I’m never accused of fighting only for Negro rights,” he once said.
“I’m fighting for human rights.”
In due course, the list of causes grew longer, including (but not limited to) apartheid in South Africa, American Indian rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, nuclear power, police brutality, prison reform, and of course the Vietnam War.
The pursuit of these altruistic interests left less time for the revenue-generating stand-up comedy that was his bread and butter, but Dick Gregory was adamant that the cause(s) came first.
Health is Cool
“If they took all the drugs, nicotine, alcohol and caffeine off the market for six days, they’d have to bring out the tanks to control you.”
He was no less committed to his ventures into the realms of nutrition and global conspiracy. By the late 1960s, the routine of nightclub employment had taken its toll. The iconic image of Gregory sitting on a stool in his dark, three button suit, one foot on the floor, a dangling cigarette lacing the darkness with its seductive smoke, was almost as compelling as his deadpan delivery and biting wit. More often than not, this image was accentuated by a glass of alcohol.
Reportedly tipping the scales at 350 lbs., consuming four packs of cigarettes and a fifth of scotch daily, he turned his life around through the embrace of a vegetarian lifestyle. Losing hundreds of pounds, almost predictably he incorporated this lifestyle change into his political pursuits. In short order, he included fasting as an adjunct to protesting for causes he deemed just. During the holiday season of 1967, he began a fast of consuming only distilled water. Starting at 288 lbs., 40 days later, he weighted in at 97 lbs. when he broke the fast by drinking a glass of fruit juice.
During his unsuccessful run for the Chicago mayoral spot, he made the acquaintance of Dr. Alvenia M. Fulton. An ordained minister affiliated with the Nation of Islam, she turned to naturopathic medicine and dropped off some edibles at his campaign headquarters. Gregory initially ignored the food, fearing it might have been tainted by any number of the agencies or organizations he regularly criticized. Dr. Fulton appeared the next day to prepare him a salad, and figured prominently in the dramatic weight loss that turned his life around. Their relationship lasted for decades, with Fulton becoming the editor of “Dick Gregory’s Natural Diet for Folks who Eat” (1974).
In due course, he fasted for 45 days in solidarity with Native Americans (1968); abstained for 45 days to protest Chicago school segregation (1966), and fasted for 81 days in 1970 to protest narcotics addiction in the United States. He once traveled to Ireland, where he advised the Irish Republican Army during their hunger strikes, and advised the Ethiopian government on addressing its problem of malnutrition.
At his most extreme, he went without solid food for two years to protest the Vietnam War.
He devised dietary programs for John Lennon, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jackson, and close friend and Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt. On the event of the 1978 shooting that paralyzed him, Flynt who was on a Dick Gregory devised diet, had been fasting for several days. The fact that his digestive tract was relatively empty probably saved his life.
One of his more publicized health ventures is his promotion of the Slim-Safe Bahamian Diet. In a 1989 interview with 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley, it was reported that he’d sold the franchise rights for this weight loss powered drink for $30 million.
In 2001, he was diagnosed with lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system. Refusing the traditional remedy of chemotherapy, he followed a regiment of exercise, herbs, and vitamins, which he believed put his malady into remission.
Coda: passing the torch
“I chose to be an agitator. And there’s one interesting thing about being an agitator—and I tell people—the next time you put your underwear in the washing machine, take the agitator out, and all you’re going to end up with is some dirty, wet drawers.”
—In a 1989 interview with Ed Bradley for 60 Minutes.
A leading proponent of conspiracy theories, Gregory willingly offered opinions about the ulterior motives behind world events, some far-fetched, others eventually born out. The on-going allegations against colleague Bill Cosby, he surmised, may be retribution for the beleaguered comedian “not knowing his place,” in his failed attempt to purchase the broadcasting company NBC in the late 1990s.
Along with Larry Flynt, and attorney Mark Lane, he spent a considerable amount of time examining the JFK, MLK, and RFK assassinations. Other scenarios he has expounded on were the 9/11 tragedy, CIA complicity in the crack cocaine epidemic (which has been validated), and swine flu inoculations being a cover for a plot for mass genocide.
Dick Gregory is survived by his wife, Lillian, and ten children. An eleventh child, Richard Jr., died in infancy.