Reflecting On Dick Gregory: Master Comedian, Activist And Teacher

Dick Gregory was an American institution unto himself: a comedian, author, dietary expert, political satirist, cultural analyst, activist, orator, and thinker. He died three years ago (August 19) and we must always remember his contributions to the culture.

When he was a young man, he was a track athlete at Southern Illinois University, setting records in the half-mile and mile, as well as a member of Alpha Phi Alpha.  In 1954, he was drafted into the United States Army, which is where he began telling jokes at the behest of a commanding officer who noticed his penchant for it.

He would eventually move to Chicago in hopes of becoming a professional comedian. Gregory would count Bill Cosby, Nipsey Russell and Godfrey Cambridge among his peers.  It is both appropriate and significant that Gregory be mentioned among those comedians because each of them would forego the shuck-and-jive minstrel show style for a more cerebral approach to telling stories and jokes.

Dick Gregory would be spotted by Hugh Hefner while performing at the Roberts Show Bar in Chi-Town. The black-owned bar was a favorite of white patrons of the day. Hefner would hire Gregory to work at the Chicago Playboy Club, and that is why some credit Hef with giving Gregory his big break.

Gregory was repeatedly asked to appear on Tonight Starring Jack Paar, but he would decline due to the shows policy of allowing black comics to perform but refusing to allow them to stay after the performance to talk with the host afterwards. Eventually, producers relented, making Gregory a groundbreaker.

From the very start of his professional career, Gregory would segue into activism. He was in Selma, Alabama and spoke for two hours about voter registration on what became known as Freedom Day.

The following year he increased activities in support of the Civil Rights struggle, the anti-War front against Vietnam and the fight against drug addiction. In 1967, he ran for mayor of Chicago against Richard J. Daly.

In 1968, he ran for President of the United States under the Freedom and Peace Party, garnering 47,097 votes.  His book “Write Me In” chronicles his journey as a write-in candidate. Gregory was an outspoken detractor of the findings of the Warren Commission into the death of President John F. Kennedy. In 1978, he joined Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and other noted suffragists in the National ERA March of Ratification and Extension march to the US Capitol with over 100,000 participants.

In the ’70s, Gregory was banned from Australia for fear he would cause protests and unrest. In the early ’80s, he traveled to Tehran to negotiate the freedom of hostages held by the regime. Diagnosed with lymphoma in 1999, he credited a strict diet and exercise regimen with keeping his cancer in remission.

Dick Gregory was not only a man of his own age, but one for all ages. Intelligent, resourceful, resilient and unwavering in his beliefs.

 Once I accept injustice, I become injustice. For example, paper mills give off a terrible stench. But the people who work there don’t smell it. Remember, Dr. King was assassinated when he went to work for garbage collectors. To help them as workers to enforce their rights. They couldn’t smell the stench of the garbage all around them anymore. They were used to it. They would eat their lunch out of a brown bag sitting on the garbage truck. One day, a worker was sitting inside the back of the truck on top of the garbage, and got crushed to death because no one knew he was there.

Dick Gregory, keynote address at Bryn Mawr College, February 2013



  • In Living Black and White (1961)
  • East & West (1961)
  • Dick Gregory Talks Turkey (1962)
  • The Two Sides of Dick Gregory (1963)
  • My Brother’s Keeper (1963)
  • Dick Gregory Running for President (1964)
  • So You See… We All Have Problems (1964)
  • Dick Gregory On: (1969)
  • The Light Side: The Dark Side (1969)
  • Dick Gregory’s Frankenstein (1970)
  • Live at the Village Gate (1970)
  • At Kent  State (1971)
  • Caught in the Act (1974)
  • The Best of Dick Gregory (1997)
  • 21st Century “State of the Union” (2001)
  • You Don’t Know Dick (2016)



  •  Nigger, an autobiography written with Robert Lipsyte, E. P. Dutton, September 1964
  • Write me in!
  • From the Back of the Bus
  • What’s  Happening?
  • The Shadow that Scares Me
  • Dick Gregory’s Bible Tales
  • Dick Gregory’s Natural Diet for Folks Who Eat: Cookin’ With Mother Nature
  • Callus on My Soul: A Memoir
  • Up from Nigger
  • No More Lies; The Myth and the Reality of American History
  • Dick Gregory’s political primer
  • Murder in Memphis: The FBI and the Assassination of Martin Luther King
  • African American Humor: The Best Black Comedy from Slavery to Today
  • Robert Lee  Green, Dick Gregory, daring Black leader
  • African American Humor: The Best Black Comedy from Slavery to Today
  • “Not Poor, Just Broke”, short story



  • One Bright  Shining Moment (2006)
  • The  Hot Chick (2002) as Bathroom Attendant
  • Children of the Struggle (1999) as Vernon Lee
  • Panther (1995) as     Rev. Slocum
  • House Party (1990)
  • Sweet Love, Bitter (1967) as Richie ‘Eagle’ Stokes
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