Comedian & Activist Dick Gregory Dies At 84

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Comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, who broke barriers by telling it like it is and expertly redefining what to laugh at and what to take action against, died Saturday. He was 84.

Gregory’s son, Christian, told The Associated Press his father died late Saturday in Washington, D.C. after being hospitalized for about a week. He had suffered a severe bacterial infection.

“The family appreciates the outpouring of support and love, and respectfully asks for their privacy as they grieve during this very difficult time,” Christian Gregory said. “More details will be released over the next few days.”

Gregory was one of the first black comedians to find mainstream success with white audiences in the early 1960s. He rose from an impoverished childhood in St. Louis to become a celebrated satirist who deftly commented upon racial divisions at the dawn of the civil rights movement.

Gregory earned a track scholarship to Southern Illinois University Carbondale.[1] There he set school records as a half-miler and miler. His college career was interrupted for two years in 1954 when he was drafted into the United States Army. The Army was where he got his start in comedy, entering and winning several Army talent shows at the urging of his commanding officer, who had taken notice of Gregory’s knack for cracking jokes. In 1956, Gregory briefly returned to SIU after his discharge, but dropped out because he felt that the university “didn’t want me to study, they wanted me to run.”

In the hopes of performing comedy professionally, Gregory moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he became part of a new generation of black comedians that included Nipsey Russell, Bill Cosby, and Godfrey Cambridge, all of whom broke with the minstrel tradition that presented stereotypical black characters. Gregory drew on current events, especially racial issues, for much of his material: “Segregation is not all bad. Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?

In 1961, while working at the black-owned Roberts Show Bar in Chicago, he was spotted by Hugh Hefner performing. Gregory attributed the launch of his career to Hugh Hefner, who watched him perform at Herman Roberts Show Bar. Based on that performance, Hefner hired Gregory to work at the Chicago Playboy Club as a replacement for comedian “Professor” Irwin Corey.

In 1964, Gregory became more involved in civil rights activities, activism against the Vietnam War, economic reform, and anti-drug issues. As a part of his activism, he went on several hunger strikes and campaigns in America and overseas.

Gregory began his political career by running against Richard J. Daley for the mayoralty of Chicago in 1967. Though he did not win,…