Dick Gregory dies at 84

Dick Gregory died on Saturday, August 19. This photo was taken during a rally against police brutality at the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C. (photo by Elvert Barnes/Flickr)

Dick Gregory died on Saturday, August 19. This photo was taken during a rally against police brutality at the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C. (photo by Elvert Barnes/Flickr)

Legendary civil rights activist and comedian Dick Gregory died on Saturday.

He was 84.

Friends, family and celebrities took to social media to honor the icon and innovator of the Black community.

“It is with enormous sadness that the Gregory family confirms that their father, comedic legend and civil rights activist Mr. Dick Gregory departed this earth tonight in Washington, DC,” said Christian Gregory, his son, in a statement posted on Facebook. “The family appreciates the outpouring of support and love and respectfully asks for their privacy as they grieve during this very difficult time.”

Gregory had been in a Washington, D.C. area hospital battling an undisclosed illness. However, as late as Thursday, family members were said to have been upbeat about his recovery and he even had plans to appear at a show on Saturday in the nation’s capital.

Born Richard Claxton ‘Dick’ Gregory in St. Louis, Missouri on Oct. 12, 1932, Gregory became a comedian and civil rights activist whose social satire changed the way Whites perceived African American comedians, according to his biography.

Dick Gregory entered the national comedy scene in 1961 when Chicago’s Playboy Club (as a direct request from publisher Hugh Hefner) booked him as a replacement for White comedian, ‘Professor’ Irwin Corey. Until then Gregory had worked mostly at small clubs with predominantly Black audiences (he met his wife, Lillian Smith, at one such club), according to his biography.

Dick Gregory died on Saturday, August 19. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

Dick Gregory died on Saturday, August 19. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

His biography included an instance to his wife and kids. “It’s important to note that no biography of Gregory would be complete without mentioning that he and his beloved wife, ‘Lil,’ had 10 children, who have become highly respected members of the national community in a variety of fields. They are: Michele, Lynne, Pamela, Paula, Stephanie (a.k.a. Xenobia), Gregory, Christian, Miss, Ayanna and Yohance.”

While a student at Sumner High School in St. Louis he led a March protesting segregated schools. Later, inspired by the work of leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Gregory took part in the Civil Rights Movement and used his celebrity status to draw attention to such issues as segregation and disfranchisement, according to his biography.

“When local Mississippi governments stopped distributing federal food surpluses to poor Blacks in areas where SNCC was encouraging voter registration, Gregory chartered a plane to bring in several tons of food,” the biography said. “He participated in SNCC’s voter registration drives and in sit-ins to protest segregation, most notably at a restaurant franchise in downtown Atlanta, Georgia. Only later did Gregory disclose that he held stock in the chain.”

Gregory’s autobiography, Nigger, was published in 1963 and it became the number one best-selling book in America. Over the decades it has sold in excess of seven million copies.

He explained his choice for the title in the foreword of the book, where Dick Gregory wrote a note to his mother, his biography explained.
“Whenever you hear the word ‘Nigger’,” he said, “you’ll know their advertising my book.”

Through the 1960s, Gregory spent more time on social issues and less time on performing, his biography noted. He participated in marches and parades to support a range of causes, including opposition to the Vietnam War, world hunger and drug abuse.

Dorothy Leavell, chairman of the NNPA and publisher of the Crusader Newspaper Group said that this was a sad moment and a great loss to America, especially Black America.

This is a sad moment and a great loss to America and especially Black America.