Dick Gregory, the pioneering standup comedian and civil rights activist who made his advocacy work a key component of his on-stage persona, died Saturday night in Washington, D.C. He was 84.
Gregory’s death was confirmed by his family in an Instagram post.
“The family appreciates the outpouring of support and love and respectfully asks for their privacy as they grieve during this very difficult time,” read the post from son Christian Gregory.
Gregory was active on the standup and public speaking circuit on and off for more than a half-century. He had been making comedy appearances until he was hospitalized on Aug. 9.
Gregory recently released a new book, “Defining Moments in Black History: Reading Between the Lies,” and he penned a guest column for Variety on how communities can band together to end police brutality. In June, Gregory was the subject of a lengthy profile on “CBS Sunday Morning.” Actor Joe Morton explored the ups and downs of Gregory’s standup career in the one-man show “Turn Me Loose,” which ran in New York last year.
Gregory made his mark in the early 1960s as a rare African-American comedian who was successful in nightclubs geared to white audiences. One important break famously came in 1960 when he was invited by Playboy founder Hugh Hefner to perform at his Playboy Lounge in Chicago.
Gregory was known for his folksy delivery and for incorporating commentary about segregation and discrimination into his routines. During this period he released a number of successful spoken word albums, notably 1961’s “In Living Black and White,” 1962’s “Talks Turkey,” 1964’s “So You See … We All Have Problems,” and 1968’s “The Two Sides of Dick Gregory.” In 1964, he published an autobiography with the provocative title: “N—-: An Autobiography.”
By the mid-1960s, after his friend and fellow activist Medgar Evers was murdered, Gregory turned his focus to full-time work as an activist with Martin Luther King Jr. and others. He was a vocal advocate for the rights of African-Americans and Native Americans, and he was an early opponent of the Vietnam War and South Africa’s apartheid. Gregory also tried his hand at politics, running unsuccessfully for mayor of Chicago in 1967 and mounting a presidential bid in 1968.
In a recent post that was widely circulated on social media, Gregory addressed the current flare-up of tensions in race relations, but he counseled younger activists to appreciate the gains that have come and to be mindful of history.
“Love will always be triumphant over hate,” Gregory wrote. “I have seen progress like most cannot appreciate because they were not there to bear witness. … The reality is far from perfect, but profoundly better than what daily reality was for my generation.”
A native of St. Louis, Gregory was one of six children who were abandoned in childhood by their father. He became a track star in high school, which led him to a scholarship at Southern Illinois University in 1951. He left the school after his mother died in 1953 and was drafted into the Army. His comedy career was kindled during his time in the service, where he first performed in talent shows and variety shows.
In the 1970s, after his weight ballooned to 350 pounds, Gregory became active in the cause of world hunger and nutritional advocacy, as well as spiritual awareness of the mind-body connection. He developed a popular weight-loss regimen known as the Bahamian diet, and for a time had his own line of nutritional supplements. In 1981, he endured a medically supervised 70-day fast at a hospital in New Orleans.
Gregory was a frequent presence on the talk show and late-night comedy circuit during his 1960s heyday. But he logged only a few acting roles during his long career. He had guest shots in two episodes of Comedy Central’s “Reno 911” in 2004. He had a role in the 1995 Mario Van Peebles film “Panther” as an activist minister and a cameo in the 2002 Rob Schneider vehicle “The Hot Chick.”
A prolific writer, Gregory’s other books included “Up From N—–“, “No More Lies,” and “Callus on My Soul.” He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2015.
Gregory is survived by his wife of 58 years, Lillian, and 10 children.