This evening we learned that comedian turned social and political activist, Dick Gregory, passed away. He was 84 years old.
Born on October 12th, 1932 in St. Louis, Missouri, Gregory was a walking legend in the annals of Black History. He was regarded as the first Black comedian to perform in front of white audiences regularly, at a time when Blacks couldn’t even sit in the front of the bus. He used his comedy routines to discuss the ills plaguing society, with lines such as “Segregation is not all bad. Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?”
Gregory changed the game for Black comics, breaking down barriers through a performance in 1961 at the Playboy Club in Chicago after Hue Heffner saw him performing for an all Black crowd and offered him $50 to play at his club. “When I started, a black comic couldnt work a white nightclub,” said Gregory in a 2016 interview. “You could sing, you could dance, but you couldnt stand flat-footed and talk then the system would know how brilliant black folks was. So Hugh Hefner, he came up to this black club, when Sammy Davis and all of them were there, and he saw me. And then one day Professor Irwin Corey decided that he wasnt going to work seven days, and they brought me in [as a replacement at the Playboy Club] because Hefner saw me. No other reason. And that started a whole new industry.”
A year later, Gregory made his national debut on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar, but only after demanding that he be interviewed next to Paar after his performance, a first for Black performers.
“I went in, and as I sat on the couch, talking about my children, so many people called the switchboard at NBC in New York that the circuits blew out,” he said in that same interview. “And thousands of letters came in and folks were saying, ‘I didn’t know black children and white children were the same.’ “
After that appearance, Gregory stated that his income exploded. 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.”
Gregory used his newfound fame and fortune to become a social and political activist during the Civil Rights Era. He joined forces with people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, marched in Selma and protested the Vietnam War. He even ran for the mayor of Chicago in 1967 but eventually lost to Richard Daley. He even tried to run for President in 1968 as a write-in candidate on the Peace and Freedom Party Ticket, generating close to 50,000 votes.
Over the next four decades, Gregory would continue his social and political activism, become a published author. beat cancer and became a leader in the Black community.
We learned of his passing through a statement by Christian Gregory, Dick Gregory’s son, on Facebook.
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. The family appreciates the outpouring of support and love and respectfully asks for their privacy as they grieve during this very difficult time.
RIP Mr. Gregory.