Laughs amid ac­tivism

The West Australian - - OBITUARIES - DICK GRE­GORY Co­me­dian, civil rights ac­tivist Born: St Louis, Mis­souri, 1932 Died: Wash­ing­ton DC, aged 84

Co­me­dian Dick Gre­gory rose to promi­nence in the early 1960s as an African-Amer­i­can satirist whose au­da­cious style of hu­mour was bit­ing, sub­ver­sive and top­i­cal. His jokes cen­tred on cur­rent events, politics and racial ten­sions, with a trade­mark sear­ing punch­line.

“A South­ern lib­eral,” he once asked. “That’s a guy that’ll lynch you from a low tree.” An­other: “When I get drunk, I think I’m Pol­ish. One night I got so drunk I moved out of my own neigh­bor­hood.”

Gre­gory’s ex­pert tim­ing and bold hu­mour, of­ten pulled from the day’s head­lines, in­spired the ca­reers of co­me­di­ans such as Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor.

“He was the comic that made white Amer­ica aware of the fact that African-Amer­i­can co­me­di­ans were per­fectly ca­pa­ble of satire,” Mel Watkins, a jour­nal­ist and scholar, said.

More than a co­me­dian, Gre­gory was driven by a com­mit­ment to front-line ac­tivism. He marched in Selma, Alabama, was jailed in Birm­ing­ham, was shot in the leg dur­ing the 1965 Watts ri­ots in Los An­ge­les, and had counted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, Medgar Evers and Mal­colm X among his con­fi­dants.

Protest­ing de facto school seg­re­ga­tion, he led a march in 1965 from Chicago’s City Hall to the home of mayor Richard Da­ley. He and dozens of peace­ful pro­test­ers were ar­rested for dis­or­derly con­duct af­ter they re­fused to obey po­lice or­ders to dis­perse, and hun­dreds of heck­lers be­gan pelt­ing them with rocks and eggs. In 1969, the US Supreme Court re­versed those con­vic­tions, say­ing there was no ev­i­dence they were re­spon­si­ble for the vi­o­lence.

Amid that case, Gre­gory ran for mayor against Da­ley in 1967 and for US president in 1968 as a write-in can­di­date with the left-wing Free­dom and Peace Party, cam­paign­ing against what he saw as ram­pant po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion in the ma­jor par­ties.

Gre­gory said he was ap­palled that the Demo­cratic Party would host its na­tional con­ven­tion that year in Chicago, a city where black demon­stra­tors were reg­u­larly bru­talised by the po­lice. The con­ven­tion drew a big con­tin­gent of white an­tiViet­nam pro­test­ers and the out­break of vi­o­lence that en­sued prompted Gre­gory to tell GQ in 2008: “I was at home watch­ing it on TV, and I fell on the floor and laughed. My wife said ‘What’s funny?’ And I said ‘The whole world is gonna change. White folks are gonna see white folks beat­ing white folks’.”

Gre­gory took part in highly pub­li­cised fasts for peace dur­ing the Viet­nam War — re­sult­ing in a close friend­ship with ex-Bea­tle John Lennon. In 1980, he trav­elled to Tehran on a mis­sion to free the Amer­i­cans held in the US Em­bassy and be­gan a fast that re­duced him to 44kg, be­fore he was forced by the Ira­nian gov­ern­ment to leave.

Like Muham­mad Ali, “who al­ways thought of him­self as more than a boxer, Greg al­ways con­sid­ered him­self more than a comic”, New York Times sports colum­nist and Gre­gory bi­og­ra­pher Robert Lip­syte told The In­de­pen­dent news­pa­per in 2004. “Both men suf­fered for their po­lit­i­cal con­vic­tions. But un­like Ali, Greg was con­scious of his role from the be­gin­ning. He knew that his pres­ence at South­ern demon­stra­tions would save lives, even if it killed his ca­reer.”

Richard Clax­ton Gre­gory was born in St Louis, Mis­souri, on Oc­to­ber 12, 1932. He was the sec­ond of six chil­dren and said his fa­ther, an al­co­holic, was largely ab­sent.

He and his sib­lings of­ten did not have suit­able clothes to wear and would don their mother’s dresses to go out­side and play. “The kids laughed at us and called us names,” Gre­gory told Ebony magazine in 2010. “I ig­nored the fact that I was wear­ing a dress and made fun of them, too. My jokes were fun­nier. Be­fore I knew it, I had an au­di­ence ev­ery day.”

He de­vel­oped a sinewy build and be­came a dis­tin­guished run­ner in high school. He was ac­cepted at South­ern Illi­nois Univer­sity, where he cap­tained the cross-coun­try and track teams and won cham­pi­onships.

He left col­lege and spent two years in the army, where he en­ter­tained GIs. His prow­ess at joke telling spurred his de­sire for a show-busi­ness ca­reer. He even­tu­ally made his way to Chicago, hold­ing down a va­ri­ety of brief jobs.

In his off-hours, he was a mas­ter of cer­e­monies in black clubs, earn­ing $10 a night. He briefly owned his own club, and mostly sup­ported him­self dur­ing these years with his wife’s mod­est sec­re­tar­ial salary.

Out of civil rights grew his in­ter­est in causes such as elim­i­nat­ing world hunger, end­ing cap­i­tal pu­n­ish­ment and im­prov­ing health care for African Amer­i­cans. He be­came a veg­e­tar­ian out of his com­mit­ment to non-vi­o­lence, and that led to an un­likely ca­reer as a diet guru.

In the 80s, he be­gan a ven­ture called Dick Gre­gory Health En­ter­prises, a maker of weight­loss and nu­tri­tional prod­ucts that in­cluded the “Slim-Safe Ba­hamian Diet”. He went on the lec­ture cir­cuit to pro­mote his con­tro­ver­sial diet plan, which once brought him a re­ported $100,000 in monthly roy­al­ties.

A fall­ing out with busi­ness part­ners ended that. Then came tax trou­ble and, by 1990, he said that he owed more than $1.2 mil­lion to the In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice and cred­i­tors. Over the years, he had to sell a farm in Mas­sachusetts, where he had made his home. Watkins said Gre­gory was sup­ported fi­nan­cially by Cosby dur­ing hard times.

Dick Gre­gory died on Au­gust 19 in Wash­ing­ton DC. He mar­ried Lil­lian Smith in 1959, and they had 11 chil­dren, one of whom, Richard Jr, died of pneu­mo­nia at 10 weeks.

Pic­ture: AP

Dick Gre­gory in Bev­erly Hills in 2012.

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