Celebrated stand-up comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory died today in Washington at the age of 84. The trailblazing figure was hospitalized earlier this month from a yet-to-be-announced medical condition. His official Instagram account announced his death today saying more details will be released soon. Before he died, Gregory was still actively touring and had engagements set up for the forthcoming weeks.
A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Gregory got his start as a stand-up comedian after serving in the military during the mid 1950s. He moved to Chicago to perform comedy professionally and would become part of a new generation of black comedians that included Nipsey Russell, Bill Cosby, and Godfrey Cambridge. In 1958, he opened a night club called the Apex Club. The club eventually closed and a year later he worked as the masters of ceremonies at the Roberts Shaw Club.
With his satirical and audacious comedy style, he continuously pushed the envelope with his material and performed primarily in small black-owned clubs while working as a postal worker. While performing at the Roberts Shaw Club in 1961, he caught the eye of Hugh Hefner. It was then when he received his big break and landed a gig at the Playboy Club in downtown Chicago. He would soon become one of the first black comedians to gain acclaim for performing for white audiences.
Gregory was invited to perform on The Tonight Starring Jack Paar — but he responded to the invite by saying he wouldn’t go on unless he was able to sit on the couch after his routine. He became the first black performer invited to sit and talk with the host on air after his performance.
In 1964, he penned a book titled Nigger which was one of many books he would write. The autobiography followed his impoverished childhood and the racism he experienced. He also went on to appear in his first feature, Sweet Love, Bitter, a story based on the life of Charlie “Bird” Parker.
In addition to being a controversial stand-up comedian at the time, Gregory was very active in the civil rights movement. He was deeply involved in activism against the Vietnam War, economic reform, and anti-drug issues. He ran for mayor of Chicago in 1967 and lost against Richard J. Daley, but continued to be involved in electoral politics which included a run for president in 1968.
He used his fame as a comedian as a platform and became friends with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Medgar Evers invited him to speak a voter registration rally in Jackson, Mississippi. He also did work for the NAACP, marched in Selma and was shot during the 1965 Watts riots.
His activism resonated well into the 21st century. In 2013, he was featured in a Fantagraphics book by Pat Thomas entitled Listen, Whitey: The Sights and Sounds of Black Power 1965–1975, which included the political recordings of the Civil Rights era such as Jesse Jackson, Huey P. Newton, Langston Hughes, and Jesse Jackson. Gregory’s comedic performances were relevant and political and served as groundbreaking social commentary of the time. He would often post on social media to not only continue his comedy hustle, but also his activism. In one specific post, he goes on to talk about his experience in the civil rights movement and how it still rings true today, saying “While so many go out and protest the small evils, the big evils are ever present and welcomed into our homes. From the top to bottom of my heart I say #staywoke”.
He was ranked number 82 on Comedy Central’s list of the 100 Greatest Stand-ups. He was a guest on many radio shows and appeared in Vernon Chatman and John Lee absurdist comedy variety show Wonder Showzen. He also appeared in episodes of Reno 911! and the movie The Hot Chick. In 2016, Emmy-winning Scandal actor Joe Morton played Gregory in the off-Broadway play Turn Me Loose which was produced by John Legend.
Gregory was married to his wife Lillian, who he wed in 1959. They had 11 children together.