Dick Gregory, A Salute to pioneer

Dick Gregory, the pioneering satirist who changed cool humor into a barbed force for civil liberties in the 1960s, then drifted from his craft for a life dedicated to demonstration and fasting in the name of various social causes, health routines and conspiracy theories, passed away Saturday in Washington. He was 84.

Mr. Gregory’s child Christian Gregory, who revealed his death on social networks, stated more information would be launched in the coming days. Mr. Gregory had actually been confessed to a health center on Aug. 12, his child stated in an earlier Facebook post.

Early in his profession, Mr. Gregory firmly insisted in interviews that his very first agenda onstage was to obtain laughs, not to alter how white America dealt with Negroes (the accepted word for African-Americans at the time). “Humor can no more discover the option to race issues than it can treat cancer,” he stated. Nevertheless, as the civil liberties motion was kicking into high equipment, whites who captured his club act or paid attention to his regimens on records came away with a much deeper feel for the country’s outrageous racial history.

Mr. Gregory was a development entertainer in his attract whites– a crossover star, in contrast to experienced black comics like Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley and Slappy White, whose earthy, pungent humor was generally restricted to black clubs on the so-called chitlin circuit.

Though he plainly simmered over the repression of blacks, he turned to neither scoldings nor lectures when playing big-time spaces like the starving i in San Francisco or the Village Gate in New York. Rather, he won audiences over with wry observations about the nation’s racial gorge.


He would plant himself on a stool, the photo of insouciance in a three-button match and dark tie, dragging gradually on a cigarette, which he utilized as a punctuation mark. From that perch, he would bid America to search in the mirror, and to make fun of itself.

Cock Gregory Stand Up early 1960’s. Archive movie 97974 Video by HuntleyFilmArchives
” Segregation is not all bad,” he would state. “Have you ever became aware of an accident where individuals in the back of the bus got harmed?” Or: “You understand the meaning of a Southern moderate? That’s a feline that’ll lynch you from a low tree.” Or: “I heard we’ve got great deals of black astronauts. Conserving them for the very first spaceflight to the sun.”

Some lines ended up being classics, like the one about a dining establishment waitress in the segregated South who informed him, “We do not serve colored individuals here,” to which Mr. Gregory responded: “That’s all right, I do not consume colored individuals. Simply bring me an entire fried chicken.” Lunch-counter sit-ins, main to the early civil liberties demonstrations, did not constantly exercise as prepared. “I sat in at a lunch counter for 9 months,” he stated. “When they finally incorporated, they didn’t have exactly what I desired.”

Mr. Gregory was a nationwide feeling in the early 1960s, making countless dollars a week from club dates and from records like “In Living Black and White” and “Dick Gregory Talks Turkey.” He composed the very first of his lots books. Time publication, tremendously effective then, ran a profile of him. Jack Paar, that age’s “Tonight Show” host, had him on as a visitor– after Mr. Gregory required that he be welcomed to sit for a chat. Till then, black entertainers did their numbers, then needed to leave. Time on Paar’s couch suggested having actually gotten here.

Papers in those days regularly put Mr. Gregory on a par with 2 white entertainers, Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, blessing them a troika of contemporary satire. Simply as regularly, he was later on credited with leading the way for a new age of black comics who would succeed in the white world, especially 2 skills of completely various perceptiveness: the reflective Bill Cosby and the trenchant Richard Pryor.

It was Mr. Gregory’s conviction that within a well-delivered joke lies power. He found out that lesson maturing in St. Louis, achingly bad and fatherless and typically badgered by other kids in his area.

” They were going to laugh anyhow, however if I made the jokes they ‘d laugh with me rather of at me,” he stated in a 1964 autobiography, composed with Robert Lipsyte. “After a while,” he composed, “I might state anything I desired. I got a track record as an amusing guy. And after that I began to turn the jokes on them.”

He entitled that book “nigger,” lowercase N. The word– normally decreased nowadays to “the N-word”– figured plainly in his regimens, even as he avoided the profanities that delicately cluttered the acts of other comics.

” I stated, let’s pull it out of the closet, let’s lay it out there, let’s handle it, let’s dissect it,” he stated in a 2000 interview with NPR. “It must never ever be called ‘the N-word.’ ”

In 1962, Mr. Gregory signed up with a presentation for black ballot rights in Mississippi. That was a start. He tossed himself into social advocacy body and soul, seeing it as a greater calling.

Arrests came over the lots. In a Birmingham, Ala., prison in 1963, he composed, he withstood “the very first great pounding I ever had in my life.”

He included: “It was simply body discomfort, however. The Negro has a callus growing on his soul, and it’s getting more difficult and more difficult to injure him there.”

In 1965, he was shot in the leg (the injury was not serious) by a rioter as he aimed to be a peacemaker throughout the Watts riots in Los Angeles.

Progressively, he avoided club dates to march or to carry out at advantages for civil liberties groups. Club owners ended up being unwilling to book him: Who understood if he might fly off to Alabama on a minute’s notification? As the ’60s endured, the college lecture circuit became his primary online forum and continued until his death.

“Against the advice of almost everyone, he decided to risk his career for civil rights,” Gerald Nachman wrote in “Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s” (2003). Some pillars of the movement, like Whitney M. Young Jr., executive director of the National Urban League, who died in 1971, believed that Mr. Gregory was more valuable to their cause onstage than in the streets. To which Mr. Gregory replied, “When America goes to war, she don’t send her comedians.”

In 1967, his head now ringed with a full beard and bushy hair — no more the thin mustache of earlier years — he ran for mayor of Chicago, more or less as a stunt. The next year he ran for president on the Freedom and Peace Party ticket, getting by his count 1.5 million write-in votes. The official figure was 47,133.

There seemed few causes he would not embrace. He took to fasting for weeks on end, his once-robust body shrinking at times to 95 pounds. Across the decades, he went on dozens of hunger strikes, over issues including the Vietnam War, the failed Equal Rights Amendment, police brutality, South African apartheid, nuclear power, prison reform, drug abuse and American Indian rights.

And he reveled in conspiracy theories, elaborating on them in language that could be enigmatic and circuitous. Hidden hands, Mr. Gregory insisted, were behind everything from a crack cocaine epidemic to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; from the murders of President John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lennon to the plane crash that killed John F. Kennedy Jr. Whom to blame? “Whoever the people are who control the system,” he told The Washington Post in 2000.

His fasting led to a keen interest in nutrition. Working in the 1980s with a Swedish health food company, Mr. Gregory developed a weight-reduction powder called Slim-Safe Bahamian Diet. The partners had a falling-out, and the business swooned.

Still, Mr. Gregory remained a fervent health-food advocate. In late 1999, he learned he had lymphoma but rejected chemotherapy, relying instead on vitamins, herbs and exercise. The cancer went into remission.

His activism came at a price, however. For one thing, the cascade of cash that he had once enjoyed turned into a trickle. His family paid, too.

Mr. Gregory moved to Chicago to build a comedy career in the late 1950s. There he met Lillian Smith, a secretary at the University of Chicago, and they were married in 1959. They had 11 children, one of whom, Richard Jr., died in infancy.

In 1973, when cash was still rolling in, they bought a 400-acre farm near Plymouth, Mass. (Why Plymouth? “I think the white folks is coming back, and I’m going to get a handful of Indians and stop ’em there this time,” Mr. Gregory said.) But by the early 1990s, the strapped Gregorys had lost the farm and moved into an apartment in Plymouth.

Over more than five decades of marriage, Lillian Gregory said, she understood her husband’s need — some called it an obsession — to wander off on behalf of this or that cause, typically earning nothing except attention, and sometimes not even that. But Christian Gregory, a chiropractor in Washington, said to The Washington Post in 2000: “He told his 10 children that the movement came before the family. It was a hard pill to swallow.”

Photo Credit:Reg Innell/Toronto Star, via Getty Images

Father absenteeism was a familiar phenomenon for the man born Richard Claxton Gregory in St. Louis on Oct. 12, 1932. He was the second of six children. His father, Presley, disappeared after the birth of each child, and finally left for good. The Gregory children were reared by their mother, Lucille, who scraped by on welfare and a meager income as a maid.

“Kids didn’t eat off the floor,” Mr. Gregory said of their Depression-era poverty. “When I was a kid, you dropped something off the table, it never reached the floor.”

Besides his son Christian, Mr. Gregory is survived by his wife, Lillian; two other sons, Gregory and Yohance Maqubela; seven daughters, Ayanna, Lynne, Michele, Miss, Paula Cenac, Satori and Zenobia Chisholm; two brothers, Ron and Garland; two sisters, Pauline Hariston and Delores Hill; 16 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Mr. Gregory graduated from Sumner High School in St. Louis, then attended Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill. At both schools, he was a track star and enjoyed local fame.

Not that the acclaim was free of complications. In 1961, by then a national figure, he received the key to the city from the mayor of St. Louis. Yet in his hometown, he was denied a room at a leading hotel. “They gave me the key to the city,” Mr. Gregory said, “and then they changed all the locks.”

He left college in 1954 and joined the Army, where he was able to work on comedy routines while attached to Special Services. He then returned to college, only to give it up again without graduating.

In 1956, he headed to Chicago, where he worked in small-time clubs at night and at odd jobs by day. He even tried running a club of his own, but that venture failed.

In one part-time job, Mr. Gregory sorted mail in a post office. His pattern, he later said, was to toss letters destined for Mississippi into a slot marked “overseas.” That job did not last long.

His real break came in January 1961, when he was asked to fill in for the comedian Irwin Corey, who had canceled a gig at the flagship Playboy Club in Chicago. On the big night, club managers had misgivings; the house was packed with businessmen from the Deep South. No matter, Mr. Gregory said. He insisted on performing.

“I understand there are a great many Southerners in the room tonight,” he began his act. “I know the South very well. I spent 20 years there one night.” He so won over the crowd that Playboy’s Hugh Hefner signed him for three more weeks, then extended the contract.

Despite having sworn off nightclubs in 1973, saying he could no longer work in places where liquor was served, Mr. Gregory returned to them on occasion in later years, a thin presence wreathed in white hair and beard. Though his best days were well behind him, his approach never seemed to waver from principles that he set for himself when starting out. He put it this way in his autobiography:

“I’ve got to go up there as an individual first, a Negro second. I’ve got to be a colored funny man, not a funny colored man.”

Correction: August 20, 2017 
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this obituary misstated the year of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It was 2001, not 2011.

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