Born in St. Louis, Missouri on October 12, 1932, the innovative Richard Claxton “Dick” Gregory was forced to grow up fast. Dealing with living in poverty while his mother worked long hours, and his father eventually abandoning the family, Gregory started working as a youth to help support the household.
As a teenager, Gregory began his ambition for racial justice and activism when he first protested against segregated schools. A good student, Gregory attended Sumner High School, where he excelled on the track team, setting records as a half-miler and miler. After graduation, he was accepted to Southern Illinois University on a track scholarship. In 1954, his college career was interrupted for two years when he was drafted into the United States Army.
The Army was where Gregory got his start in comedy, as he entered and won many Army talent shows at the urging of his commanding officer, who had taken notice of Gregory’s natural talent for joking. In 1956, Gregory briefly returned to SIU after his discharge, but left again because he felt that the university only wanted to focus on his talent for running, not studying.
After his return to the states, Gregory worked as an MC at various Chicago clubs, honing his craft as a comedian and taking on odd jobs while working the Chitlin’ Circuit. He showcased a trailblazing style of humor that was calm, yet satirical and full of racially tinged, sociopolitical topics pulled from contemporary headlines. This was a major a contrast to the song-and-dance routines previous African-American performers had been settled for.
“It was the first time they had seen a black comic who was not bucking his eyes, wasn’t dancing and singing and telling mother-in-law jokes,” said Gregory in a Boston Globe interview. ”Just talking about what I read in the newspaper.”
Gregory was married for more than five and a half decades to Lillian Smith. The couple tied the knot in 1959. They had 10 children, with one son passing away during infancy. Gregory has acknowledged that his wife was the primary caretaker of their children due to the demands of his work projects and traveling.
Gregory’s big break came in 1961 at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club in Chicago. As a replacement act, he performed in front of a room filled with Caucasian executives visiting from the segregated South. Nevertheless, Gregory was a huge success. With his sophisticated, yet controversial humor, Gregory became a national comedy headliner and a trailblazer for upcoming African-American humorists.
That same year, Gregory made history by appearing on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show. After making it clear that he wanted to be invited to sit on the couch to have a chat with the host like white entertainers, he eventually became the first guest on the program to do so. As a result, Gregory became a recurring guest on the show over time.
Gregory eventually turned his focus away from the stage to focus on various forms of activism that included the Civil Rights Movement and running for political office. Gregory was at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s, becoming friends with fellow pioneers such as Medgar Evans and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Over the coming decades, he focused on a range of issues including ending the Vietnam War, feminism, Native-American rights, and apartheid in South Africa. Gregory was arrested numerous times for his activism, but refused to be silenced.
In the mid-1960s, Gregory ran for mayor of Chicago, but lost to Richard Daley. In 1968, he also ran for U.S. president as a write-in candidate with the Freedom and Peace Party during the electoral showdown between Hubert H. Humphrey and Richard Nixon.
Over the years, Gregory became devoted to health and fitness, adopting a vegetarian diet and running regularly, a continuation of his preferred sport from his teen days. He also became a notable university lecturer, speaking about diet issues within African-American communities. Gregory also regularly fasted in protest of particular world events.
An accomplished author, Gregory has also written a number of books, including the controversially titled 1964 release, Nigger: An Autobiography , 1971’s No More Lies: The Myth and the Reality of American History, 1973’s Dick Gregory’s Natural Diet for Folks Who Eat: Cookin’ With Nature and the 2000 memoir Callus on My Soul.
During the mid-1980s, Gregory launched a weight-loss business known as the Slim/Safe Bahamian Diet. He eventually filed a lawsuit against his business partners with major money troubles leading to the loss of his 40-acre farm in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Eventually, Gregory turned away from stand-up for a time, citing the unhealthy environment within the clubs, but later found his way back to performing. In 1996 he starred in the popular Off-Broadway production Dick Gregory Live!
In 2000, Gregory revealed that he was diagnosed with lymphoma, reportedly stating that he relied on diet and alternative treatments to help put the cancer in remission. In 2014 Dick Gregory updated his original 4X formula which was the basis for the Bahamian Diet and created his new and improved “Caribbean Diet for Optimal Health”. Sadly, on August 19, 2017, Gregory died of heart failure at a hospital in Washington D.C. He was 84.
Many fellow comedians an activists expressed their love for Gregory on social media, including Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Jackson wrote, “He taught us how to laugh. He taught us how to fight. He taught us how to live. Dick Gregory was committed to justice. I miss him already”. #RIP In the future Gregory’s intellect, humor, fearlessness, and bold spirit will be sincerely missed.