Fans and supporters of comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory are gathered in mourning today. The fiery social critic and public figure passed over the weekend, leaving behind a rich history of blazing trails for other Black comedians and outspoken thinkers.
Richard Claxton Gregory was born October 12, 1932 in St. Louis, Missouri. The class clown used jokes to stave off bullying, and he became a notable track star at his high school. He accepted a scholarship from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, starring for the school for two years before being drafted into the U.S. Army.
Gregory discovered a love for comedy while serving in the military and after his honorable discharge, he moved to Chicago to break into the business. His career took a sharp upturn when Playboy’s Hugh Hefner discovered the witty jokester and worked at the magazine founder’s Chicago club for a spell. This led to several television opportunities for Gregory, cementing his status as a star.
Around the time of Gregory’s rise to fame, he began to involve himself with the civil rights movement and released his 1964 biography, Nigger. That book remains one of Gregory’s best known works in his more than a dozen releases. He also released over a dozen comedy albums, including one in 2016.
Activism and public speaking became the order of Gregory’s later career, which also included a stint in the health supplement world with his “Slim-Safe Bahamian Diet” drink powder in the ’80’s. He took a break from comedy because of his of his objections to alcoholic beverages being served in nightclubs, but returned to the stage for performances here and there in the ’90’s.
Gregory is survived by his wife Lilian Smith, whom he married in 1959, and had 11 children, with one son, Richard Jr., passing as an infant. Gregory’s schedule often made fatherhood challenging, but he has often said his wife was the rock that kept their family together.
Gregory was 84.
PHOTO: Elvert Barnes
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