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RIP Dick Gregory, Comedy Trailblazer & Committed Civil-Rights Activist

By Stephen Gossett in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 20, 2017 5:00PM

Dick Gregory / Getty Images / Photo: Frederick M. Brown

Dick Gregory, the revered, trailblazing comic and fearless civil-rights activist died of heart failure on Saturday at the age of 84 in Washington D.C.

Gregory rose to prominence in the 1960s by turning his caustic comic lens toward racism and bigotry. He became one of the first black comics to perform in front of white audiences and later launched bids for political office, remaining fiercely committed to pursuing social justice and staying pointedly funny until the end.

Family confirmed Gregory's death on social media. Dick's son Christian Gregory wrote on Saturday: "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. The family appreciates the outpouring of support and love and respectfully asks for their privacy as they grieve during this very difficult time. More details will be released over the next few days."

Gregory was born in St. Louis in 1932. He moved to Chicago after his discharge from the army, where he first started doing comedy, to further his standup career. It was there that he delivered some of his most iconic routines. He gave a now-legendary performance in 1961 at the Playboy Club, where he was invited by Hugh Hefner to substitute in front of a mostly white audience. Hefner caught his act at the Roberts Show Bar, a black room in Chicago, where Gregory delivered one of his most famous, barbed anti-racist bits:

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I understand there are a good many Southerners in the room tonight. I know the South very well. I spent twenty years there one night.

Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant and this white waitress came up to me and said, "We don't serve colored people here." I said, "That's all right. I don't eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken."

Then these three white boys came up to me and said, "Boy, we're giving you fair warning. Anything you do to that chicken, we're gonna do to you." So I put down my knife and fork, I picked up that chicken and I kissed it. Then I said, "Line up, boys!""

The trailblazing Playboy performance "started a whole new industry" and helped dismantle the color barrier in comedy Gregory told the Florida Times Union in 2016. "When I started, a black comic couldn’t work a white nightclub. You could sing, you could dance, but you couldn’t stand flat-footed and talk—then the system would know how brilliant black folks was."

With his star rising, Gregory initially refused an invitation to perform on the Tonight Starring Jack Paar because black comics weren't invited on the couch. Only after a personal call from Paar in which the host agreed to have him be seated did Gregory agree.

Gregory used his newfound platform to focus attention directly on civil-rights and social issues. He was shot trying to quell chaos during the riots in Watts, and marched in Selma with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and was briefly jailed. He maintained close friendships with Malcolm X, John Lennon, Robert Kennedy and other cultural, political and civil-rights luminaries, and was a fierce critic of the Vietnam War.

He penned several books, including the seminal Nigger: An Autobiography by Dick Gregory, in 1964. "Those of us who weren't destroyed got stronger, got calluses on our souls," he wrote. "And now we're ready to change a system, a system where a white man can destroy a black man with a single word. Nigger."

Gregory later marshaled his activism into bids for political office, first with a bid against Richard J. Daley for mayor of Chicago, in 1967. The following year he ran for president as a write-in candidate, running as a Freedom and Peace Party candidate. Among the more than 47,000 voters to cast a ballot for Gregory in the race were Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). He continued to perform well into his later years and advocate for the causes he held dear.

Tributes poured in Saturday night and Sunday morning from the worlds of entertainment, politics, activism and beyond.

"He taught us how to laugh. He taught us how to fight. He taught us how to live," wrote Rev. Jesse Jackson.

"From comedy to civil rights to a life dedicated to equality, he never waned. Immeasurable generational sacrifice. A transformative blockbuster comedian who obliterated the color line," Christian Gregory wrote of his father the day after his death," wrote Christian Gregory.

"He quickly realized that the inequities and travesties of life were no laughing matter. There is no question humanity is better for it, we will allow his legendary history to stand for itself. Generations will delve into his sacrifice, comedic genius, focus and aptitude. For now, we simply want to reflect on his Service and Grace. Civil Rights, Women's Rights, children's Rights, Human Rights, Disabled Rights, Animal Rights. Dick Gregory's DNA is virtually on every movement for fairness and equality for all livings things on this planet. He was rarely one to rest and never one to stop championing for peace. Hopefully now he may find some semblance of them both."