Even at age 84, Dick Gregory was such a vigorous, health-conscious man, it’s hard for me to imagine him ever dying. But the genius Dick Gregory joined his ancestors Aug. 19 with his family by his side.
As a comedian, when he broke through in the 1960s he literally “cracked your sides.” He was brainy, bawdy and so socially conscious. He broke the ceiling at the Playboy Club. He was featured on the “Tonight Show,” back when Jack Paar hosted it. He was featured in movies, and he stood by the civil rights movement like a champ.
And then Dr. King was murdered and a new, even more militant Richard Claxton Gregory emerged, reciting the Declaration of Independence in his college speeches, and evoking tears instead of laughter.
He was the 1968 presidential nominee of the Peace and Freedom Party, at the time when the “freedom” movement and the “peace” movement — the anti-war movement — were at their height. That’s when I first met this incredible man, when he appeared at San Jose State. He wrote a book that year. He titled it “Nigger.” He sent a copy to Richard Nixon, he said, “so there’d be a nigger in the White House.”
A few years later in Chicago, I came to really get acquainted with this world-renowned entertainer, humanitarian. I would frequently encounter him around Hyde Park, where he lived. He would jet about in his Citroen automobile. That was a time when European cars were distinctly different from the American gas-guzzlers. His daughter Ayanna, one of the younger of Dick and Lillian Gregory’s 10 children, told me she remembers only that it was a cool car that could be raised and lowered.
In Chicago, Dick Gregory encountered his diet guru, Dr. Alvenia Fulton, who offered a version of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s “How To Eat To Live,” for diet-conscious black Chicagoans, not affiliated with Mr. Muhammad. Gregory let his hair grow out of that 1960s Quo Vadis style into bearded and bushy. He dropped 60 pounds. He was a new, Dick Gregory.
Adding his profound sense of social consciousness to his diet awareness, he often went on fasts protesting injustices. At first he consumed only Dr. Fulton’s juices, then the fasts were water only. Some lasted for months.
In high school in St. Louis, Dick Gregory had excelled in track and field. He was a runner, so it’s no wonder that this “new man” might then set out from Chicago, literally running. With the help of retired marketing executive George O’Hare as his publicist, he set out on numerous coast-to-coast runs, to raise attention for always vitally important causes. He was a crusader.
He never met a plausible conspiracy theory he did not like. Even some that were not plausible, could be made to seem reasonable when Dick Gregory recited web of intrigue. He co-authored, with attorney Mark Lane, “Code Name Zorro,” which argues that James Earl Ray did not assassinate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Then in Washington, D.C., in the ’80s, ’90s and beyond, I came to know him better, as did many, many thousands of people who lived in the DMV. On radio station WPFW (89.3 FM) he was a frequent voice. And on WOL-AM (1450) he was a fixture with Radio One founder Cathy Hughes.
Back when there used to be late-night newsstands or magazine stores, I would sometimes catch up with Greg stocking up for a session of binge reading … but he was always a binge reader.
Dick Gregory was often so serious and thought-provoking; I had forgotten how funny he could be. Then, in the past 10 years or so, his comedy career made a comeback. He did small-time gigs — like a benefit for Brother Bey at the Roots Activity Learning Center — and bright-lights sets at the newly remodeled Howard Theatre, and like the Greg of old, he always made us “crack our sides,” by being bawdy and brilliant.
He was bold, courageous, fun to be around, funny, and now, sadly, he’s gone.