Comedian Dick Gregory—who attacked racism through a biting and satirical style of comedy, and was equally well-known for his civil rights activism and advocacy of an austere health regimen—died Saturday, Aug. 19, at the age of 84. Gregory’s family confirmed his death with a post on Instagram.
Born Oct. 12, 1932, in St. Louis, Gregory grew up in an impoverished community in that city. He helped to support his family from an early age. In high school he excelled in track and field, earning a scholarship to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He set school records in the 1/2-mile and 1-mile races. His college career was interrupted when the U.S. Army drafted him in 1954.
Gregory began to venture into comedy while in the Army, performing various routines in military shows. After briefly returning to Southern Illinois after being discharged in 1956, he moved to Chicago to join the national comedy circuit, without finishing his degree. He performed mostly in small, primarily black nightclubs while working at the U.S. Postal Service during the day. It was at one of those nightclubs that he met Lillian, the woman who became his wife in 1959. She and Gregory would have 10 children (as well as one child who died in infancy).
His big break came in 1961, when a one-night show at the Chicago Playboy Club turned into a two-month engagement. Time magazine profiled him, and he landed an appearance on The Jack Paar Show. Gregory was a new phenomenon: a black comedian performing for white audiences. He was also part of a new generation of black comedians, including Nipsey Russell, Bill Cosby and Godfrey Cambridge, who shunned the stereotypical comedic minstrel show. In his routines, Gregory tackled issues of the day—especially racism and civil rights—head on. A sampling of his stand-up: “Segregation is not all bad. Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?”
During this time, Gregory became very active in the civil rights movement. He spoke before the voter-registration drive known as Freedom Day on Oct. 7, 1963, and made appearances at a number of other rallies, marches and benefits. In 1963 he was jailed in Birmingham, Ala. He was also an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War.
In 1964 Gregory released his autobiography, Nigger, about his experiences with America’s color line, starting in boyhood; it has since sold more than 7 million copies. In response to his mother’s objection over the incendiary title, he wrote in the foreword, “Whenever you hear the word ‘nigger,’ you’ll know they’re advertising my book.”
Gregory’s political activism led him to run, unsuccessfully, for mayor of Chicago in 1966 and for the presidency as a write-in candidate of the Freedom and Peace Party in 1968. Of his presidential campaign, he wrote in the 1968 book Write Me In! about how one-dollar bills that the campaign had printed with Gregory’s picture on them had made their way into the money supply. The federal government managed to seize most of the bills, and Gregory avoided criminal charges.
Throughout his life, Gregory remained outspoken on many issues, including world hunger, capital punishment, women’s rights (he marched for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1978), health care and drug abuse. In 2005, at a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, he called the U.S. “the most dishonest, ungodly, unspiritual nation that ever existed in the history of the planet. As we talk now, America is 5 percent of the world’s population and consumes 96 percent of the world’s hard drugs.” As a protester, Gregory never stopped putting himself on the front lines: In 2004, at the age of 73, he was arrested while protesting against genocide outside the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, D.C.
In the 1970s, after moving to Massachusetts, Gregory became very interested in vegetarianism, nutrition and overall fitness, eventually advocating a diet of raw fruits and vegetables (this from a man who once weighed 350 pounds, drank heavily and smoked several packs of cigarettes a day). He was particularly opposed to the typical soul food diet, attributing to it much of African Americans’ disproportionate health challenges. In 1984 he launched Dick Gregory Health Enterprises Inc., which sold Slim-Safe Bahamian Diet, a very profitable weight-loss program. The business was shuttered, however, after a conflict with his business partners.
Gregory’s nutritional and political views often found common ground in his sometimes extreme fasting in protest of or support for various issues. During one hunger strike, which he embarked on in Iran in 1980 to obtain the release of U.S. Embassy staff who had been taken hostage, his weight dropped to a reported 97 pounds.
He was also an active proponent of conspiracy theories, no doubt fueled by the assassinations he’d witnessed in the 1960s. Gregory was particularly skeptical about the official U.S. report concerning the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C.: “One thing I know is that the official government story of those events, as well as what took place that day at the Pentagon, is just that, a story. This story is not the truth, but far from it.”
Gregory announced in 2000 that he’d been diagnosed with lymphoma, but he refused traditional treatment, instead turning to a nutritional regimen, exercise and other alternative therapies, and eventually declaring himself cancer free. “An Evening of Reflections with Dick Gregory,” a gala held at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., honored Gregory that same year. Celebrities in attendance included Bill Cosby, Cicely Tyson, Paul Mooney, Stevie Wonder and Isaac Hayes.
Gregory, who was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, is ranked at No. 81 on Comedy Central’s list of the 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time. He also has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame and received numerous awards for his civil rights and health activism. Despite his abbreviated career there, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1989.
Monée Fields-White is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles.