Gregory, Dick (1932—)

views updated

Gregory, Dick (1932—)

Dick Gregory brought a unique approach to political activism: he was one of the first African Americans to use his celebrity to promote a variety of political causes. He has intertwined his political beliefs with his work as an athlete, comedian, author, actor, and nutritionist since the 1950s. As the first Black comedian to work in "top-of-the-line" white nightclubs and on television, Gregory was one of the first African Americans to define Black issues for a mainstream white audience. He reached millions with his popular satirical comedy, bringing to light such issues as racism, civil rights, segregation, and nonviolence. He also used his humor to promote his ideals in his movie appearances and books. In the 1960s, Gregory used his visibility as an entertainer to bring political causes like the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, and the fight against violence, hunger, drug and alcohol abuse, and poor health care to popular attention. He combined his celebrity with such "attention-getting" tactics as fasts for political causes.

Born Richard Claxton Gregory on October 12, 1932, he was raised in poverty in St. Louis, Missouri. Gregory realized the power of politics at an early age; while in high school he was president of his graduating class and organizer of a march against conditions in segregated schools. With his interest in activism, Gregory soon learned the benefits of combining fame with politics. An athletic scholarship to Southern Illinois University (SIU) helped him achieve athletic fame on the track team as the fastest half-miler ever at SIU, and, in 1953, he was the first Black student awarded the school's Outstanding Athlete of the Year award. Gregory used his prominence to desegregate Carbondale's only movie theater.

While in the Army, Gregory performed comedy shows, and by the late 1950s he had begun working in Chicago nightclubs. He parlayed a one-night gig at the prestigious Playboy Club into a six-week run that brought him national recognition, winning him coverage in Time magazine and an appearance on the popular Jack Paar Show. He subsequently had gigs at numerous nightclubs, concerts, and on other television shows. Gregory's unique ability to use humor and wit to publicize political discourse to a large cross-section of the general population also brought the attention of Medgar Evars and Martin Luther King, Jr., who asked him to become more involved with the civil rights movement. He performed at benefits for groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). He became involved with Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference programs, and in 1963 he helped collect and deliver 14,000 pounds of food to people in Leflore County, Mississippi. A strong advocate of King's non-violent movement, he was often jailed with King for civil disobedience.

In the 1960s Gregory wrote a number of books which continued his campaign for the civil rights movement. He titled his 1964 autobiographical work Nigger as a shock tactic. The tactic seemed effective as the book sold over a million copies. Gregory ran for mayor of Chicago in 1966 and for president of the United States in 1968. Those experiences were recounted in his book Write Me In. Gregory continued his fight to promote civil rights and his theories on how the government has tried to kill the civil rights movement and its leaders in books like No More Lies: The Myth and the Reality of American History and Code Name Zorro: The Murder of Martin Luther King, which he co-authored with Mark Lane. In addition to his books, Gregory made social commentary comedy records to spread his message even further. One of his records was the first "talk" record to sell over a million copies.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, Gregory had expanded his activism to address issues including the Vietnam war, healthcare, capital punishment, Native American land and fishing rights, violence, and world hunger. Gregory began using fasts to bring attention to issues. In the tradition of Ghandi, Gregory began one of his many fasts in 1967 to protest the Vietnam War. His forty-day fast was sprawled over the media. Since that first fast, Gregory has fasted over 100 times for political causes, including one fast of 71 days.

In addition to his political causes, Gregory became one of the first celebrities to strongly advocate vegetarianism, becoming an expert on nutrition and a marathon runner in the 1970s. He jogged across the country to gain recognition for his political analysis of health and nutrition issues and his belief that nutritional solutions can help alleviate world hunger. In 1973, he published Dick Gregory's Natural Diet for Folks Who Eat: Cooking with Mother Nature and formed Dick Gregory Health Enterprises, Inc. around his nutritional product, the chemical-free, dairy-free Bahamian Diet in 1984. Gregory focused his health work on the African American community, blaming their lower life expectancy on poor nutrition and alcohol and drug addiction. To do his part to alleviate world hunger, he donated 2,600 pounds of his nutritional formula to starving Ethiopians. Gregory's approach to nutrition brought together issues of healthy eating, world hunger, and racism.

Throughout the 1990s, Gregory continued fighting for and gaining recognition for a wide spectrum of political causes. Despite being credited with "opening the door" for many Black comedians, Gregory stayed out of the entertainment business. Instead, his ability to combine wit, intelligence, humor, and political conviction continued to help support many political causes.

—tova stabin

Further Reading:

Buyukmihci, Hope Sawyer. "A Thinking Man's Journey." The av magazine. Vol. 102, No. 6, June 1, 1994, 17.

Gregory, Dick. Dick Gregory's Political Primer. Edited by James R. McGraw. New York, Harper & Row, 1972.

——. Nigger: An Autobiography. New York, Dutton, 1964.

——. No More Lies. Cutchogue, Buccaneer Books, 1993.

——. No More Lies: The Myth and the Reality of American History. Edited by James R. McGraw. New York, Harper & Row, 1971.

——. Up from Nigger. Edited by James R. McGraw. New York, Stein and Day, 1976.

About this article

Gregory, Dick (1932—)

Updated About content Print Article