Dick Gregory: Gone but Not Forgotten

Dick Gregory
**FILE** Dick Gregory (Shevry Lassiter/The Washington Informer)

Tributes continue to pour in on via various medias in honor of the legendary civil rights activist and comedian Dick Gregory, who died Saturday at the age of 84.

“A true legend and barrier breaker,” TV One’s Roland Martin noted.

Singer John Legend said Gregory lived an amazing, revolutionary life and Ava DuVernay said Gregory “taught us and loved us.”

“RIP, Dick Gregory, the world needs more like you,” sports writer Dave Schilling tweeted while basketball writer Myron Metcalf wrote, “Dick Gregory was the greatest and he was the first. Somebody had to break down that door.”

Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, president and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, also paid homage on Saturday.

“We salute and honor the living legacy of freedom fighter Dick Gregory. RIP,” Chavis wrote on Twitter.

Activist Dick Gregory with Washington Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes and Howard University journalism students during a 2014 visit to The Washington Informer office in southeast D.C., where Gregory shared some of his philosophies (Shevry Lassiter/The Washington Informer)

Gregory had been in a D.C.-area hospital battling an undisclosed illness.

However, as late as Thursday, family members were said to have been upbeat about his recovery. In fact, he even had plans to appear at a show Saturday in the District.

Born Richard Claxton “Dick” Gregory in St. Louis on Oct. 12, 1932, Gregory became a comedian and civil rights activist whose social satire changed the way whites perceived African-American comedians.

Early Years of His Comedy Career

He burst onto the national comedy scene in 1961 when Chicago’s Playboy Club (as a direct request from publisher Hugh Hefner) booked him as a replacement for white comedian “Professor” Irwin Corey. Before then, Gregory had worked mostly at small clubs with predominantly Black audiences. In his biography, he says he met his wife, Lillian Smith, at one such club.

However, such clubs paid comedians an average of five dollars per night so Gregory also held a day job as a postal employee.

His tenure as a replacement for Corey was so successful — at one performance he won over an audience that included southern white convention goers — that the Playboy Club offered him a contract extension from several weeks to three years, Gregory’s biography said.

By 1962, Gregory had become a nationally known headline performer, selling out nightclubs, making numerous national television appearances and recording popular comedy albums.

It’s important to note that no biography of Gregory would be complete without mentioning that he and his beloved wife, Lil, had 10 children all of whom have become highly respected members of the national community in a variety of fields.

They are: Michele, Lynne, Pamela, Paula, Stephanie (aka Xenobia), Gregory, Christian, Miss, Ayanna and Yohance. The Gregory’s had one child who died at birth but they have shared 49 years of historic moments, selfless dedication and tremendous personal love.

Gregory began performing comedy in the mid-1950s while serving in the army.

Drafted in 1954 while attending Southern Illinois University at Carbondale on a track scholarship, Gregory briefly returned to the university after his discharge in 1956, but left without a degree because he felt that the university “didn’t want me to study, they wanted me to run.”

In the hopes of performing comedy professionally, he moved to Chicago where he became part of a new generation of Black comedians that included Nipsey Russell, Bill Cosby and Godfrey Cambridge.

These comedians broke with the minstrel tradition, which presented stereotypical Black characters. Gregory, whose style was detached, ironic and satirical, came to be called the “Black Mort Sahl” after the popular white social satirist.

Friends of Gregory have always referred to Mort Sahl as the “White Dick Gregory.”

Racism Draws Him into Civil Rights Movement

Gregory drew on current events, especially the racial issues, for much of his material.

In one of his jokes he said, “Segregation is not all bad. Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?”

While a student at Sumner High School in St. Louis, he led a march protesting segregated schools. Later, inspired by the work of leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and organizations that included the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Gregory took part in the Civil Rights Movement and used his celebrity status to draw attention to a host of issues including segregation and disfranchisement.

Dick Gregory (left) with Martin Luther King III during the R.I.S.E. awards in Southeast on Jan. 9 (Travis Riddick/The Washington Informer)

When local Mississippi governments stopped distributing federal food surpluses to poor Blacks in areas where SNCC had been encouraging voter registration, Gregory chartered a plane to bring in several tons of food.

He participated in SNCC’s voter registration drives and in sit-ins to protest segregation, most notably at a restaurant franchise in downtown Atlanta. Only later did Gregory disclose that he held stock in the chain.

Gregory’s autobiography, “Nigger,” published in 1963 prior to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, would become a No. 1 best-selling book in the U.S., selling more than seven million copies over the decades that followed.

He explained his choice for the title in the forward where he wrote to his mother.

“Whenever you hear the word ‘Nigger,’ you’ll know they’re advertising my book,” he wrote.

Through the 1960s, Gregory spent more time on social issues and less time on performing, participating in marches and parades to support a range of causes, including opposition to the Vietnam War.

Chavis called him one of America’s greatest luminaries.

“Dick Gregory epitomized the rare combination of being an intellectual genius and one of our greatest social visionaries,” he said. “The National Newspapers Publishers Association deeply mourns the passing of freedom fighter Dick Gregory.”

More Words of Tribute

Donald M. Suggs, St. Louis American, publisher and executive editor:

“Dick Gregory used his razor-sharp wit to slice open and expose the racial injustices that are a continuing reality for people of color in America — and he forever changed the landscape of Black comedy in the process. He became a national sensation in the early 1960s but after he joined a demonstration for Black voting rights in Mississippi in 1962, he became a dedicated activist for social change. As a participant in the Civil Rights Movement, he not only put his livelihood — but his life — at risk. At the height of his popularity, he left the clubs to fully commit to his role as a relentless change agent but not before creating the blueprint for a new arc of politically astute, biting satire that remains a standard for comedy at its best. A St. Louis native, Dick Gregory moved away but he never left. He was always generous and accessible in lending his time and talent to his friends and family in St. Louis in varied capacities — from headlining benefit performances to the front lines of Ferguson. His life should serve as an example of how to effectively use one’s platform in the ongoing struggle for justice.”

Marc H. Morial, National Urban League, president and CEO:

“Dick Gregory was both a personal friend and a strong supporter of the Urban League movement. He was a guest at my wedding and spent two weeks campaigning for me in New Orleans neighborhoods during my 1994 runoff campaign for mayor. He was a frequent speaker at Urban League events and his sharp-witted insight will be sorely missed. With the nation facing a crisis of racial hostility, we would do well to be guided by his unwavering dedication to justice.”

Rushern L. Baker III, Prince George’s County Executive:

“Today, Prince George’s County and our nation mourn the loss of Dick Gregory, one of the most prominent, effective and engaged civil rights leaders and activists. Before it was commonplace to use comedy and satire to speak truth to power, Dick Gregory was a pioneer in not only how he entertained but in the manner that he utilized his talents and beliefs to the benefit of millions of oppressed individuals around the world. He helped us find our voice, our confidence and our compassion for others. He enabled generations of Americans to stand up for their rights and to pursue progress and change and understand that we all must fight for it personally. As we remember Dick Gregory, we need to share his contributions with our youth. who may not know how important he is to our history. And, in his memory, we all should continue his lifelong commitment to justice, progress, civil rights and humanity.”

Keith Silver, special assistant to Dick Gregory:

“The one thing I know 100 percent for a fact is Dick Gregory daily walked with God and … God walked with him.”

WI Editor D. Kevin McNeir contributed to this article.

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About Stacy Brown 308 Articles
I’ve worked for the Daily News of Los Angeles, the L.A. Times, Gannet and the Times-Tribune and have contributed to the Pocono Record, the New York Post and the New York Times. Television news opportunities have included: NBC, MSNBC, Scarborough Country, the Abrams Report, Today, Good Morning America, NBC Nightly News, Imus in the Morning and Anderson Cooper 360. Radio programs like the Wendy Williams Experience, Tom Joyner Morning Show and the Howard Stern Show have also provided me the chance to share my views.
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