Brow Beat

Dick Gregory, Pioneering Comedian and Activist, Has Died at 84

Dick Gregory speaking at the Summer Television Critics Association Tour in 2012.

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Comedian and activist Dick Gregory died Saturday at the age of 84, the New York Times reports. In the early 1960s, Gregory was one of the first black comedians to break out of the so-called Chitlin Circuit of black clubs in the South and achieve fame and success in white clubs before turning from comedy to activism, becoming an important voice in the civil rights struggle. He remained primarily a political activist until his death, participating in marches and hunger strikes for causes ranging from the Vietnam War to prison reform.

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Gregory was born in St. Louis in 1932. Raised by his mother, he was a track star in high school and college before leaving school in 1954 to join the Army. In 1956, he moved to Chicago, getting by on a variety of odd jobs while playing small clubs at night. His break came in 1960, when he filled in for Irwin Corey at the Chicago Playboy Club, winning over a room full of white Southerners visiting the city and impressing Hugh Hefner so much he booked him for the next three weeks.

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Gregory’s comedy career took off from there. Between 1960 and 1964, he released seven comedy albums, did the Tonight Show (he insisted Jack Paar let him sit down for a chat after his act, a privilege not usually afforded to black guests), and commanded high booking fees even as his humor became more pointed. In early interviews, he downplayed the political aspects of his act, telling one interviewer that “Humor can no more find the solution to race problems than it can cure cancer.” Which didn’t mean he didn’t use it to draw attention to race problems—one of his jokes went, “You know the definition of a Southern moderate? That’s a cat that’ll lynch you from a low tree.”

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But Gregory was sincere in his conviction that comedy alone would do little to bring racial justice to America, so he pursued other avenues. His first major demonstration was in the belly of the beast: a march for black voting rights in Mississippi in 1962. After being beaten in Birmingham, Alabama, he wrote:

It was just body pain, though. The Negro has a callus growing on his soul, and it’s getting harder and harder to hurt him there.

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Gregory’s comedy career took a hit from his activism, as much because of his habit of canceling on club owners for marches and protests as from his political positions. In 1967, after spending months picketing Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s house in an effort to integrate Chicago’s schools, he ran for mayor himself, earning 21,000 votes as a write-in candidate. In 1968, several states listed him as the Peace and Freedom Party candidate for the presidency, although their official candidate was Elridge Cleaver. (Cleaver, who was not yet 35, was ineligible to serve and so some states wouldn’t put him on the ballot; Gregory had been the runner-up at their convention.) Legitimacy aside, Gregory got more votes nationally than Cleaver did, though far fewer than Richard Nixon.

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Over the years, Gregory lent his name and fame to a variety of causes ranging from the noble (the Equal Rights Amendment, apartheid, ending the war in Vietnam) to the conspiratorial (he had theories about the deaths of JFK and JFK Jr.). His frequent hunger strikes got him interested in nutrition, and in the 1980s, he launched a weight-loss powder called “Dick Gregory’s Slim Safe Bahamian Diet,” stunt-hiring the security guard who reported the Watergate break-in as a spokesman. In 1999, he put his health-food theories to the test, treating his own lymphoma with diet and exercise instead of chemotherapy. (Gregory’s cancer went into remission, whether his treatment regimen was responsible or not.) He is survived by Lillian, his wife of more than five decades, plus three sons, seven daughters, 16 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. In the 1964 autobiography he wrote with Robert Lipsyte—titled nigger, a word he freely used in his routines, he later explained, to “pull it out of the closet” and “deal with it”—he described his evolution as a comedian like this:

They were going to laugh anyway, but if I made the jokes they’d laugh with me instead of at me. After a while, I could say anything I wanted. I got a reputation as a funny man. And then I started to turn the jokes on them.

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