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.”
On Facebook, Roland Martin, a journalist and host of NewsOne on TV One said that he had enormous respect for Gregory.
“He was honest, truthful, unflinching, unapologetically Black. He challenged America at every turn. RIP,” wrote Martin.
On Twitter, Martin reported that comedian Paul Mooney sent him text that said, “I am going to miss my friend.”
“He was one of the sweetest, smartest, most loving people one could ever know,” said Steve Jaffe, Gregory’s publicist of 50 years, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Jaffe added, “I just hope that God is ready for some outrageously funny times.”
Singer John Legend tweeted that, “Dick Gregory lived an amazing, revolutionary life. A groundbreaker in comedy and a voice for justice. RIP.”
Filmmaker Ava DuVernay tweeted that Gregory “taught us and loved us.”
Quoting legendary entertainer Richard Pryor, sports writer Myron Medcalf tweeted, “Dick Gregory was the greatest, and he was the first. Somebody had to break down that door.”
Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. the president and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, also paid homage to Gregory.
“We salute and honor the living legacy of freedom fighter Dick Gregory. RIP,” Chavis wrote on Twitter.
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 official 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.
Such clubs paid comedians an average of five dollars per night; thus Gregory also held a day job as a postal employee. His tenure as a replacement for Corey was so successful — at one performance he won over an audience that included southern White convention goers — that the Playboy Club offered him a contract extension from several weeks to three years, Gregory’s biography said.
By 1962, Gregory had become a nationally known headline performer, selling out nightclubs, making numerous national television appearances, and recording popular comedy albums.
It’s important to note that no biography of Gregory would be complete without mentioning that he and his beloved wife, “Lil,” had ten 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.
Gregory began performing comedy in the mid-1950s while serving in the army. Drafted in 1954, while attending Southern Illinois University at Carbondale on a track scholarship, Gregory briefly returned to the university after his discharge in 1956, but left without a degree, because he felt that the university “didn’t want me to study, they wanted me to run.”
In the hopes of performing comedy professionally, he moved to Chicago, where he became part of a new generation of black comedians that included Nipsey Russell, Bill Cosby, and Godfrey Cambridge. These comedians broke with the minstrel tradition, which presented stereotypical Black characters. Gregory, whose style was detached, ironic, and satirical, came to be called the “Black Mort Sahl” after the popular White social satirist. Friends of Gregory have always referred to Mort Sahl as the “White Dick Gregory.” Gregory drew on current events, especially the 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?”
“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 Gregory’s official bio. “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. 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. His choice for the title was explained in the forward, where Dick Gregory wrote a note to his mother. “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. He participated in marches and parades to support a range of causes, including opposition to the Vietnam War.
“Dick Gregory epitomized the rare combination of being an intellectual genius and one of our greatest social visionaries,” Chavis said. “The National Newspapers Publishers Association deeply mourns the passing of freedom fighter Dick Gregory.”