“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.,” his son Christian Gregory wrote on Instagram.
Born in St. Louis, Gregory first started performing standup comedy in the Army in the 1950s.
His major break came in 1961 when he was spotted by Playboy founder Hugh Hefner performing at a Chicago nightclub.
The gig included what is now one of Gregory’s best-known jokes: “Last time I was down South, I walked into this restaurant. This white waitress came up 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.’”
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Gregory went on to perform before an audience of white businessmen at the Playboy Club in Chicago after the headliner canceled.
“It was the first time they had seen a black comic who was not bucking his eyes, wasn’t dancing and singing and telling mother-in-law jokes,” he told the Boston Globe in 2000. “Just talking about what I read in the newspaper.”
Gregory instantly shot to fame, landing gigs at the country’s top clubs and raking in as much as $25,000 a night.
At the same time, the civil rights movement was gathering momentum and Gregory bravely injected himself into the cause, trading stage performances for sit-ins and marches.
Some critics called him out for allowing his demonstrating to interfere with his comedy career.
“My career is interfering with my demonstrating,” Gregory shot back.
A close friend of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, he was shot in the leg during Los Angeles’ Watts Riots in 1965 and even ran for President as a write-in candidate in 1968.
No comedian of the era was as fearless in taking on the political establishment. “Dick Gregory was the greatest, and he was the first,” Richard Pryor once said. “Somebody had to break down that door.”
Gregory’s activism didn’t end with the civil rights movement. He crusaded for world peace, stood alongside Gloria Steinem and other feminists, and even held a hunger strike in Iran during the 1980 hostage crisis.
Gregory’s unconventional life also saw him create a multi-million dollar weight-loss powder. “He taught us how to laugh. He taught us how to fight. He taught us how to live,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson. “Dick Gregory was committed to justice. I miss him already. #RIP”
New York City’s First Lady Chirlane McCray called Gregory a “freedom fighter way ahead of his time.” And Larry King described him as an “American original” and a “giant of comedy, civil rights and astute political observations.”