Dick Gregory was a comedy icon and civil rights activist whose stand-up work poked fun at bigotry and racism during one of the most turbulent times in American history. He has released numerous comedy albums and books, appeared on television, and spoke about civil rights in places like Alabama and Mississippi.
His anti-Vietnam War activism placed him on President Richard Nixon’s infamous “enemies” list, and Gregory even launched a campaign against Nixon in the 1968 presidential race. instead, he was drafted into the US military.
Gregory was born in St. Louis in 1932 and grew up to be a young athlete. His sport was running and he excelled at it. He was the Missouri State Cross Country Champion in 1950, which helped him secure a scholarship to Southern Illinois University. There he set school records in the mile and half mile.
In 1954, before graduating from college, Gregory received a draft notice and entered the United States Army at Fort Hood, Texas. He held various positions for two years, but it was during his time as a soldier that he felt that comedy could be his calling.
One commander noticed his comedic timing and encouraged him to enter talent contests, which he did, winning several. After his time in the military ended, Gregory returned to the SIU for a while, but felt the school wanted him more for his athletic ability, not his studies. He gave up and moved to Chicago.
Once in the Windy City, he began his acting career, using racial prejudice and segregation as the sources for much of his material. Gregory performed at local black comedy clubs while working as a daytime postman.
His big break came when Hugh Hefner saw his act at Black’s owned Roberts Show Bar. Hef hired him to do a set at the Playboy Club in Chicago in 1961. His one-night appearance turned into a six-week set at Hefner’s.
Soon after, Gregory was making appearances in Time Magazine and in “The Tonight Show Starring Jack Paar”. In 1964 he published an autobiography, which aimed to frankly address the discrimination and racism he had suffered, titled “Nigger”. The book has been so popular since its first publication that it has never been out of print. He followed his first book from a vegetarian cookbook, “Dick Gregory’s Natural Diet For Folks Who Eat: Cookin ‘With Mother Nature”.
Although a trained comedian, Gregory had a higher calling: activism. He spent the rest of his life performing while championing various social and political causes.
With the publication of his cookbook, he became a vegetarian activist, but that was not the limit of his activism. He joined the burgeoning civil rights movement, speaking during the 1963 Freedom Day voter registration campaign in Selma, Alabama. He also joined the effort to locate the bodies of three missing civil rights activists in Philadelphia, Mississippi, offering a reward of $ 25,000 for the information.
Gregory was also active in the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era, speaking at the Moratorium to End the Vietnam War protest in Washington, DC, in 1969. His political activism led to a campaign against Mayor Richard J. Daley in Chicago in 1967 and a race against Nixon for president (as a candidate for the Freedom and Peace Party) in 1968.
He was a strong supporter of many other social and political movements. He marched for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1978, advocated for the rights of Native American tribes, and publicly criticized American foreign policy toward apartheid in South Africa.
Gregory even went to Iran in 1980 to negotiate the release of hostages held in the former US embassy in Tehran. When that didn’t work, he staged a public hunger strike while in Iran and weighed less than 100 pounds when he returned to the United States.
Gregory has been an active artist and comedian for most of his life, while working for social change. He died of heart failure in Washington, DC on August 19, 2017, at the age of 84.
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