Crusader staff report
He’s gone, but his stinging jokes that kept Black and white folks laughing when race relations boiled during segregation live on. Chicago and the world wait to learn the final rites of beloved comedian/activist Dick Gregory, who took his last breath at age 84 on Saturday, August 19. Gregory stayed true to himself and left this world with the last laugh.
Services remain incomplete, but family, fans and prominent celebrities are remembering Gregory as an uncompromising human being who joked and stood up to racism as a comedian and activist.
“Dick Gregory was a personal friend, but also a voice for Black America which has now been stilled,” said the Chicago Crusader publisher Dorothy Leavell. “Dick was also a close friend to the Black Press and the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA).”
From clubs to sit-ins, Gregory had a reputation as a tireless crusader, who, despite his fame and fortune, never forgot his humble roots. In his own right, Gregory was an American success story that held no borders or limits at a time when opportunities were few for Black stand-up comedians. But like many pioneers of color during the Jim Crow era, Gregory dreamed and succeeded with big odds stacked against him as the nation’s first Black satirist.
To many, he was one of the last great comedians whose grace and humor not only entertained audiences, but exposed the sen- selessness of racism and bigotry in America.
He was reportedly close friends with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, but when he opened his mouth at white clubs across the country, he won the hearts and admiration of thousands of fans, many who heckled him because of the color of his skin. Gregory had an impact on America, Chicago and its Black Belt where he blazed a trail for future comedians, such as Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor.
Born in a predominantly Black ghetto in St. Louis, Missouri in 1932, Gregory was the second of six children. His father abandoned the family, leaving his mother poor and often without food or electricity. While in high school, Gregory became a state champion in track and field and earned an athletic scholarship to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois.
He moved to Chicago to build a comedy career in the late 1950s, and it was in Chicago, he met Lillian Smith, a secretary at the University of Chicago. They were married in 1959 and had 11 children. One of them, Richard Jr., died in infancy.
At a time when Blacks were hired only as singers and dancers in white-owned clubs, Playboy CEO Hugh Hefner hired Gregory to fill in as a comedian in his flagship club in Chicago’s Gold Coast. His audience was mostly white Southern businessmen, who heckled him with racist gibes, but Gregory stuck to his routine for hours and left them howling. It was a breakthrough for Gregory and for Black America.
“I remember the evening well,” Gregory said in the Independent UK in Britain in 1984. “It was a blowing blizzard. I got on the bus with my stage suit in a bag, but I got off at the wrong stop. I knew I had to be there at eight, and I had to run through the snow. Every one of those clichés was going round in my head: niggers is [sic] always late; niggers is [sic] lazy; niggers can’t be trusted…”
As it turned out, Gregory prepared for hecklers during practice sessions where his wife would purposely call him nigger so he could fine tune funny comebacks.
While he became known for his courage performing before tough white crowds, it was Gregory’s jokes that made him famous and loved. He told a joke about a waitress who said, “We don’t serve colored people here,” to which Gregory replied, “That’s all right, I don’t eat colored people. Just bring me a whole fried chicken.”
Gregory frequently clashed with law enforcement and with Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley in the 1960s. In Bridgeport, he once led a march through schools where Daley’s neighbors turned on their sprinklers while shouting anti-integration slogans. When Gary Mayor Richard Gordon Hatcher celebrated “Dick Gregory Day,” Daley did not attend.
In 1967, Gregory ran for mayor against Daley as a write-in candidate. The next year, he ran for president against Richard Nixon. He was often arrested during multiple sit-ins. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover enlisted a mob to keep a close eye on Gregory during the presidential election. Gregory lost both races, but the moves served to send a message that politics were a joke during the time.
Tired of showbiz, Gregory joined the Civil Rights Movement in 1964. He admired Mahatma Gandhi, King and embraced nonviolence. He also became a popular speaker on college campuses.
Once an overweight smoker and drinker who ballooned to 350 pounds, Gregory became a lean, energetic proponent of liquid meals and raw food diets. In 1988, he developed Slim-Safe Bahamian Diet. The program still receives rave reviews on Amazon.com.
Gregory is survived by his wife, Lillian; sons Christian, Gregory and Yohance Maqubela; seven daughters: Ayanna, Lynne, Michele, Miss, Paula Cenac, Satori and Zenobia Chisholm; two brothers, Ron and Garland; two sisters, Pauline Hariston and Delores Hill; 16 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.