Dick Gregory, pioneering comedian, author and civil rights activist, died Saturday at the age of 84.
“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,” Gregory’s son Christian wrote on the comedian’s Instagram page. “The family appreciates the outpouring of support and love and respectfully asks for their privacy as they grieve during this very difficult time.”
Gregory had been hospitalized at Washington, D.C.’s Sibley Memorial Hospital since August 9th with a urinary tract infection. “My prognosis is excellent and I should be released within the next few days,” Gregory wrote on August 16th while announcing rescheduled tour dates for the end of the month.
However, while at the hospital, Gregory suffered “a bifurcated thoracic aortic aneurysm,” the family announced Sunday. “For a lifetime, my father took all the hits, however, this hit was too much,” Christian Gregory wrote.
The St. Louis-born Gregory got his start in comedy while serving in the Army in the Fifties, where he worked on his craft in talent shows. After years of performing to predominately black audiences at nightclubs while holding down a day job at the post office, Gregory’s big break came in January 1961, when Hugh Hefner asked him to fill in at the Playboy Club in Chicago.
Hefner signed Gregory to a three-week residency, then extended the contract, the New York Times reports. The residency allowed Gregory to be among the first black comedians to be embraced by white audiences, even as he held a mirror up to them for their role in racial inequality at the time. Both Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby credited Gregory with blazing their path.
One oft-told Gregory bit was about the comedian’s journey to a restaurant in the segregated South. “We tried to integrate a restaurant, and they said, `We don’t serve colored folk here,’ and I said, `Well, I don’t eat colored folk nowhere. Bring me some pork chops.’ And then Ku Klux Klan come in, and the woman say, ‘We don’t have no pork chops,’ so I say, ‘Well, bring me a whole fried chicken.’ And then the Klan walked up to me when they put that whole fried chicken in front of me, and they say, ‘Whatever you do to that chicken, boy, we’re going to do to you.’ So I opened up its legs and kissed it in the rump and tell you all, `Be my guest.’ “
In the early Sixties, Gregory became a fixture of the Civil Rights Movement: He marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. at Selma, where he and his wife were briefly jailed, he told the Chicago Tribune. He was friends with Malcolm X and Medgar Evers and ran for mayor of Chicago in 1967.
During the tumultuous time around the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Gregory ran for President as a write-in candidate; Hunter S. Thompson was among those who voted for Gregory, as the gonzo journalist revealed numerous times in The Great Shark Hunt. Gregory wrote Write Me In! in 1968 about his presidential bid.
Other notable books by Gregory include his controversial 1963 tome Nigger: An Autobiography, From the Back of the Bus and Dick Gregory’s Natural Diet for Folks Who Eat: Cookin’ With Mother Nature, which he wrote after becoming a vegetarian. Gregory also advocated for women’s rights, animal rights and the end of apartheid. Gregory was also close with Michael Jackson, Bill Clinton and Robert Kennedy.
“From comedy to civil rights to a life dedicated to equality, he never waned. Immeasurable generational sacrifice. A transformative blockbuster comedian who obliterated the color line,” Christian Gregory wrote of his father the day after his death.
“He quickly realized that the inequities and travesties of life were no laughing matter. There is no question humanity is better for it, we will allow his legendary history to stand for itself. Generations will delve into his sacrifice, comedic genius, focus and aptitude. For now, we simply want to reflect on his Service and Grace. Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, children’s Rights, Human Rights, Disabled Rights, Animal Rights. Dick Gregory’s DNA is virtually on every movement for fairness and equality for all livings things on this planet. He was rarely one to rest and never one to stop championing for peace. Hopefully now he may find some semblance of them both.”
“Dick Gregory was a planet of a person whose gravitational effect on comedy was so massive and all-encompassing it still can’t be measured,” Patton Oswalt tweeted.
“Comedian Dick Gregory always told it like it is. Our laughter was fuel to fight for justice in an unjust world,” said Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Samuel L. Jackson tweeted, “RIP Dick Gregory, A 5 Star General in The War for Human Rights!! Glad to have been in your sphere.” John Legend added, “Dick Gregory lived an amazing, revolutionary life. A groundbreaker in comedy and a voice for justice. RIP.”
In another post Sunday morning, Christian Gregory wrote, “A healthy dose of wit and wisdom just arrived in heaven, of that I am absolutely certain. Dick Gregory is eternal. He sacrificed so others could, the true beauty was that the others were always the disenfranchised and the underdog. There is a profound amount of ugly in the world today. Consider some slight discomfort to make life a little better as we pay tribute to a lifelong crusader.”
Although Gregory’s television and movie appearances were rare in the last 30 years, the comedian continued to be a fixture on the stand-up circuit, most recently touring with Paul Mooney.
Recently, Gregory penned his new book Defining Moments in Black History: Reading Between the Lines and published a Variety op-ed about how to end police brutality.
Earlier this year, Gregory was named one of Rolling Stone’s 50 Best Stand-Up Comics of All Time.