Laughs amid activism
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.
Dick Gregory in Beverly Hills in 2012.