Dick Gregory, the comedy legend and civil rights activist, died on Aug. 19, 2017. He was 84.
His son wrote on Instagram that “It is with enormous sadness that the Gregory family confirms that their father, comedic legend and civil rights activist Mr. Dick Gregory departed this earth tonight in Washington, DC.” He had been hospitalized with a “serious but stable medical condition” a few days earlier.
Throughout Gregory’s life he was remembered for cunning wit and his activism with the civil rights movement. Regarded as the first African-American comic to perform regularly in front of white audiences, Gregory appeared on all of the top TV talk shows of the 1960s and 1970s.
The St. Louis native cynically satirized racism and other social ills during his routines (“Segregation is not all bad. Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?”). As a way to mine his always-timely material, Gregory followed a lifelong habit of stripping articles out of newspapers and magazines. His act was smart and rarely employed profanity.
He broke ground at the Playboy Club in Chicago and on Jack Paar’s ‘Tonight Show,’ then became a potent activist for civil rights. Playboy founder Hugh Hefner had spotted Gregory performing for a black audience, and he was paid $50 for the Playboy Club show — a huge payday for him at the time. One of Gregory’s jokes: “Last time I was down South, I walked into this restaurant, and this white waitress came up to me and said, ‘We don’t serve colored people here.’ I said, ‘That’s all right, I don’t eat colored people. Being me a whole fried chicken.’ ”
The crowd during that first show, mostly white executives from a frozen-food company, loved him. He 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.”
Gregory used his newfound fame to become a civil-rights activist and opponent of the Vietnam War. Gregory ran for mayor of Chicago in 1967 but lost to Richard Daley, then entered the race for U.S. president a year later. A write-in candidate on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket, he received some 47,000 votes.
“Had I won, first thing I would do is dig up that Rose Garden and plant me a watermelon patch,” Gregory said in 2016. “And it would be no more state dinners, but watermelon lunches. We’d eat watermelon and spit the seeds on Pennsylvania Avenue.”
Until recently, he was doing more than 200 shows and lectures a year.