Comedian, activist Dick Gregory, whose big break came in Chicago, dies

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LOS ANGELES  — Dick Gregory, who broke racial barriers in the 1960s and used his humor to spread messages of social justice and nutritional health, has died. He was 84.

Mr. Gregory’s son, Christian, told The Associated Press his father died late Saturday in Washington, D.C., after being hospitalized for about a week. He had suffered a severe bacterial infection. His family shared the news via social media on Twitter and Instagram:

Mr. Gregory was one of the first black comedians to find mainstream success with white audiences in the early 1960s. He rose from an impoverished childhood in St. Louis to become a celebrated satirist who deftly commented upon racial divisions at the dawn of the civil rights movement.

An admirer of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. Gregory embraced nonviolence and became a vegetarian and marathon runner.

He preached about the transformative powers of prayer and good health. Once an overweight smoker and drinker, he became a trim, energetic proponent of liquid meals and raw food diets. In the late 1980s, he developed and distributed products for the popular Slim-Safe Bahamian Diet.

When diagnosed with lymphoma in 2000, he fought it with herbs, exercise and vitamins. It went in remission a few years later.

He took a break from performing in comedy clubs, saying the alcohol and smoke in the clubs were unhealthy and focused on lecturing and writing more than a dozen books, including an autobiography and a memoir.

Mr. Gregory went without solid food for weeks to draw attention to a wide range of causes, including Middle East peace, American hostages in Iran, animal rights, police brutality, the Equal Rights Amendment for women and to support pop singer Michael Jackson when he was charged with sexual molestation in 2004.

“We thought I was going to be a great athlete, and we were wrong, and I thought I was going to be a great entertainer, and that wasn’t it either. I’m going to be an American Citizen. First class,” he once said.

Richard Claxton Gregory was born in 1932, the second of six children. His father abandoned the family, leaving his mother poor and struggling. Though the family often went without food or electricity, Gregory’s intellect and hard work quickly earned him honors, and he attended the mostly white Southern Illinois University.

“In high school I was fighting being broke and on relief,” he wrote in his 1963 book. “But in college, I was fighting being Negro.”

He started winning talent contests for his comedy, which he continued in the Army. After he was discharged, he struggled to break into the standup circuit in Chicago, working odd jobs as a postal clerk and car washer to survive. His breakthrough came in 1961, when he was asked to fill in for another comedian at Chicago’s Playboy Club. His audience, mostly white Southern businessmen, heckled him with racist gibes, but he stuck it out for hours and left them howling.

That job was supposed to be a one-night gig, but lasted two months — and landed him a profile in Time magazine and a spot on “The Tonight Show.”

In a 2006 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Mr. Gregory talked about that club engagement: “I started in Chicago. At the Playboy Club. There wasn’t but one in the world at the time, and everybody from around the world would come there to play. It was the first time a black comedian was allowed to flat-foot [do standup] at a big nightclub. That was all [because] of Hugh [Hefner] And he would give you a good drink. In those days, the Mob controlled 98 percent of the clubs and they watered down their liquor. So people would come to the Playboy Club and get two shots for the price of one.”

According to

[Mr. Gregory] stayed on at the Playboy Club for three weeks (the gig turned into three years), and the attention got him a profile in Time magazine — “Dick Gregory, 28, has become the first Negro comedian to make his way into the nightclub big time.” He was invited to perform on The Tonight Show in 1962, but Gregory said he wouldn’t go unless he was able to sit down next to host Jack Paar after his routine and be interviewed. A black performer had never done that before. After ‘The Tonight Show’ appearance, Gregory noted that his salary jumped from $250 for seven nights of work (three shows a night) at the Playboy Club to $5,000 a night. ‘And the next year and a half, I made $3.9 million,’ he said. ‘That is the power.’

He also ran for president in 1968 as the Peace and Freedom party candidate. When asked about losing that presidential bid in 1968, Mr. Gregory told the Sun-Times in a 2013 interview: “When you white folks get the first black president, you get a behaved one. You get one who went to the best schools in the world. You get one that’s gentle. N—– don’t talk loud, don’t raise his voice. If I’d have been your president, the first thing I would have done when I was sworn in was dig up that rose garden and plant me a watermelon patch.”

According to the

“More than a comedian, Mr. Gregory was driven by an unwavering commitment to front-line activism. He marched in Selma, Ala., was jailed in Birmingham, Ala., was shot in the leg during the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles, and had counted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X — all slain campaigning for their cause — among his confidants. At one protest, Mr. Gregory said, his pregnant wife was kicked in the stomach by a white sheriff.

“Mr. Gregory’s entertainment career increasingly took a back seat to his activism. Protesting de facto school segregation, Mr. Gregory led a march in 1965 from Chicago’s City Hall to the home of Mayor Richard J. Daley. He and several dozen peaceful protesters were arrested for disorderly conduct — they had refused to obey police orders to disperse, and hundreds of hecklers began pelting them with rocks and eggs.”

Dick Gregory the activist has a message for Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley in 1965. | SUN-TIMES FILE PHOTO

His political passions were never far from his mind — and they hurt his comedy career. The nation was grappling with the civil rights movement, and it was not at all clear that racial integration could be achieved. At protest marches, he was repeatedly beaten and jailed.

Mr. Gregory also was among the speakers at the memorial service for the late Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert in 2013.

He remained active on the comedy scene until recently, when he fell ill and canceled an August 9 show in San Jose, California, followed by an August 15 appearance in Atlanta. The comedian was also scheduled to perform Aug. 27 at the Patio Theater on Chicago’s northwest side, in a show titled “An Evening with Dick Gregory.” On social media, he wrote that he felt energized by the messages from his well-wishers, and said he was looking to get back on stage because he had a lot to say about the racial tension brought on by the gathering of hate groups in Virginia.

“We have so much work still to be done, the ugly reality on the news this weekend proves just that,” he wrote.

Christian Gregory posted this statement on his Facebook page Aug. 17:

“My father, Dick Gregory remains hospitalized with a serious but stable medical condition. His prognosis is excellent and he should be released within the next few days.
After feeling ill last Wednesday (August 9th) Mr. Gregory was taken to the hospital. He was evaluated, treated and released. Showing only minimal improvement we returned him to the hospital Saturday (August 12) he was evaluated and admitted. Balancing a fine line between privacy and his friends and fans (who are his extended family) right to know. We have and will always gladly and freely share this gift with the world. When it comes to sickness and disease one’s age is highly significant. There is no such thing as a “simple” condition. In advanced age a simple cold or a simple infection could be catastrophic. At soon to be chronologically 85, my father’s true age far exceeds that. A life well-lived but heavily sacrificed, has definitively taken its toll.
Laughter is truly good medicine. I’ve watched my father for a lifetime heal the world. Today he is in need of your healing. We are truly grateful for the phenomenal care he has been receiving. My family and I remain thankful for all of the prayers, positive thoughts, messages and good energy.
Most appreciatively, Christian Gregory”

When asked in that 2006 Sun-Times interview, which comedians he considered to be his idols, Mr. Gregroy didn’t skip a beat, replying: “This culture produced three comedic geniuses — Mark Twain, Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor.”

Mr. Gregory is survived by his wife, Lillian, and 10 children.

DAISY NGUYEN, Associated Press; Contributing: Sun-Times reporter Miriam Di Nunzio

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