Civil rights activist and comedian Dick Gregory, who passed away on Saturday at age 84, will be missed.
Gregory was the first black comedian to perform at white clubs in the 1960s, and he also took to the front lines of civil rights protests (on one occasion, jailed for five days) and later with hunger strikes (against the Vietnam War, apartheid, and police brutality, to name a few causes). He is cited across the board as an inspiration for comedians like Trevor Noah, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Paul Mooney, Chris Rock, and innumerable others. (Check out an in-depth obit over at The Root).
His mixture of that humor and activism is illustrated by a few examples in the New York Times:
Some lines became classics, like the one about a restaurant waitress in the segregated South who told him, “We don’t serve colored people here,” to which Mr. Gregory replied: “That’s all right, I don’t eat colored people. Just bring me a whole fried chicken.” Lunch-counter sit-ins, central to the early civil rights protests, did not always work out as planned. “I sat in at a lunch counter for nine months,” he said. “When they finally integrated, they didn’t have what I wanted.”
You can view one of his early performances before a predominantly white audience from 1961 here [scroll 15:30], in which he jokes: “[Baseball] is a great sport for my people. That is the only sport in the world where Negroes can shake a stick at a white man and it won’t start no riot.”
He was a conspiracy theorist, believing that federal agents killed Malcolm X and John F Kennedy, and that the government was involved in the September 11th attacks. He had reason to be skeptical. A March, 1978 issue of the Chicago Tribune reported that in the 1960s, J Edgar Hoover had ordered the Chicago office of the FBI to develop measures to “neutralize” Gregory for his bold speech. (It was unclear whether that order came to anything.)
Gregory was also an avid health proponent with his self-invented “Bahamian diet,” a mixture of vegetarian eating and a vegan supplement called “Formula Four X.” Questlove posted on Instagram:
When I was coming up he was one of the first major black figures I saw advocating for a healthier lifestyle for black folks that were caught on stress (& stress eating) and all the unhealthy choices we’ve made in the name of cheaper survival options as opposed to long life options.
In a 2016 episode of the reelblack podcast, he said he doesn’t hang out with entertainers. But that’s not stopping entertainers from honoring him.
His early works remain–sometimes unfortunately–relevant. Here’s a track from his 1961 record In Living Black and White on voting rights. In 2017, we have an attorney general who’s worked throughout Gregory’s career oppose them.