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Gregory, Dick

Dick Gregory

1932—

Comedian, Activist, Advocate

Dick Gregory has made a name for himself in many areas: as an athlete, comedian, civil rights activist, author, nutritionist, outspoken defender of peaceful solutions to overseas conflicts, and, in the 2000s, elder statesman of every issue he has ever taken on. Perhaps his greatest success, however, was simply in overcoming the extreme poverty into which he was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on October 12, 1932. Raised by a single mother who often worked late into the evening, Gregory started hustling early in life, shining shoes and doing odd jobs to help support himself and his many siblings. He was a bright child who wished to excel in school, but circumstances at home—where his family was often without electricity or food—made it difficult to study. In Nigger: An Autobiography, Gregory recalled: "I got picked on a lot around the neighborhood; skinniest kid on the block, the poorest, the one without a Daddy. I guess that's when I began to learn about humor, the power of a joke.… They were going to laugh anyway, but if I made the jokes they'd laugh with me instead of at me. I'd get the kids off my back, on my side."

Found Humor in Adversity

Gregory decided to go out for track in high school because he knew team members had the luxury of hot showers every day after practice. At first the coach wouldn't let him try out, but Gregory refused to accept that decision. "Every day while the team ran around inside the field, around the track, I ran outside, around a city block," he remembered. The coach began to let Gregory have the hot showers he craved; by the next year Gregory's personal training regimen earned him a spot on the team. Soon he was setting records and winning championships. Success on the team and the celebrity that went with it provided a welcome relief from the pains of being the poorest kid on a poor block. By senior year Gregory was captain of the track and cross-country teams and his self-esteem had become developed enough for him to run for president of his class—and win. Gregory's speed and endurance were his ticket into Southern Illinois University, where he continued to set records and win championships. His wins began to seem hollow, however, as he became more and more conscious of the many little injustices he faced daily in the predominantly white university. "Track became something different for me in college," he stated. "In high school I was fighting being broke and on relief.… But in college I was fighting being Negro."

He did some satirical comedy work at a few of the school's variety shows and found performing both exhilarating and frightening. "For a while, standing on that stage and watching those people laugh with me, I thought it was even better than winning a track meet," he wrote in Nigger. "But running track was safer: You can be saying the funniest thing in the world but if Whitey is mad at you and has hate, he might not laugh. If you're in good condition and you can run faster than Whitey, he can hate all he wants and you'll still come out the better man." Gregory began to develop what he called "an attitude," which accompanied him into the Army when he was drafted in 1954. His wisecracks to superiors led to a confrontation with a colonel who challenged him to win the comedy competition at that night's talent show—or face court-martial. Gregory won and was transferred to the Army's Special Services entertainment division.

After his discharge from the service Gregory drifted for a while, then headed to Chicago, where he began trying to carve out a name for himself as a comedian. It was a long struggle. He got some low-paying, short-term jobs as host at various black nightclubs, but between these he was forced to work as everything from a postal clerk to a car washer. In 1958 Gregory borrowed some money and opened his own nightclub, the Apex, on the outskirts of the city. The first weekend seemed to forecast a rosy future for the club, but several successive weekends of fierce winter weather kept the crowds away and nearly wiped Gregory out financially; the Apex closed before a full year had passed. Things began to look up in late 1959, however, when he rented the Roberts Show Club in Chicago and organized a party for the Pan American Games. The success of the event and of Gregory's role as its master of ceremonies convinced the owner of the Roberts to hire the young performer as his regular master of ceremonies. The best black acts in the country played the club, which gave Gregory a chance to study and learn from the likes of funnyman Nipsey Russell and song-and-dance legend Sammy Davis, Jr. Unfortunately, the job lasted only a year and for a short time Gregory was back to scrabbling for one-night stands in small clubs. Then, early in 1961, he got the job that changed his life.

Hit It Big as Comedian

Gregory's agent called to say that a replacement was needed for a comic scheduled to work Chicago's Playboy Club. The comedian raced downtown for this prestigious gig, only to be turned away by the club's booking agent. The explanation was that the room had been booked to a convention of executives from the South who seemed likely to be hostile to a black comedian. Gregory recalled: "I was cold and mad and I had run twenty blocks and I didn't even have another quarter to go back home. I told him I was going to do the show they had called me for.… I didn't care if he had a lynch mob in that room." Gregory remembered facing the unreceptive crowd: "I went all the way back to childhood that night in the Playboy Club, to the smile Momma always had on her face, to the clever way a black boy learns never to let the bitterness inside him show. The audience fought me with dirty, little, insulting statements, but I was faster, and I was funny, and when that room broke it was like the storm was over. They stopped heckling and they listened. What was supposed to be a fifty-minute show lasted for about an hour and forty minutes."

The original one-night contract at the Playboy was extended to a two-month engagement, and Gregory's career took off. Time ran a feature on him, Jack Paar invited him to appear on his television program, and Gregory was soon one of the hottest acts on the nightclub circuit. He became the first black comedian to break the "color barrier" and perform for white audiences. The key to his comedy success was his satirical approach to race relations and his development of jokes that were about race, but not derogatory. In his autobiography he described his attitude on stage at that time: "I've got to go up there as an individual first, a Negro second. I've got to be a colored funny man, not a funny colored man." After starting off with several jokes poking fun at himself, he would switch to a topical joke. For instance: "They asked me to buy a lifetime membership in the NAACP, but I told them I'd pay a week at a time. Hell of a thing to buy a lifetime membership, wake up one morning and find out the country's been integrated." Having introduced the race issue in a non-threatening way, Gregory would then confront the audience more pointedly, with a line like: "Wouldn't it be a hell of a thing if all this was burnt cork and all you folks were being tolerant for nothing?"

At a Glance …

Born on October 12, 1932, in St. Louis, MO; son of Presley and Lucille Gregory; married Lillian Smith, February 2, 1959; children: Michele, Lynne, Paula, Pamela, Stephanie, Gregory, Christian, Ayanna, Missy, Youhance. Education: Attended Southern Illinois University, 1951-53, 1955-56.

Career:

Roberts Show Club, Chicago, IL, master of ceremonies, 1959-60, entertainer and commentator, 1961–; Dick Gregory Health Enterprises, Chicago, chairman, 1984. Lecturer at numerous universities. Candidate for mayor of Chicago, 1966; presidential candidate of Freedom and Peace Party, 1968.

Awards:

Winner of Missouri Mile championship, 1951 and 1952; Outstanding Athlete award, Southern Illinois University, 1953; Ebony-Topaz Heritage and Freedom award, 1978; honorary doctorate of humane letters, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, 1989; has received more than one hundred civil rights awards; presented with the key to the city of St. Louis.

Addresses:

Home—Long Pond Rd., Plymouth, MA 02360. Office—Dick Gregory Health Enterprises, 39 South LaSalle, Chicago, IL 60603.

Deep-rooted concern about political and social issues was evident from the beginning of Gregory's career—in his choice of poverty, segregation, and social injustice as satirical targets. As his fame increased he was able to direct the energy he'd previously poured into searching for gigs toward putting his personal convictions into practice. During much of the 1960s Gregory spent his evenings in nightclubs satirizing racism and his days in the street demanding black voting rights. He made appearances at civil rights marches and rallies throughout the United States and performed benefits for SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), CORE (the Congress on Racial Equality), and other agents of social change. At one point he commuted daily from San Francisco to Chicago in order to fulfill a nightclub engagement while participating in a series of demonstrations. He was arrested and jailed several times and was beaten severely by police in a Chicago jail. "I wouldn't mind paying my income tax if I knew it was going to a friendly country," he joked during this period.

From Humorist to Activist

Concern over America's social problems finally spurred Gregory to enter electoral politics. He was a candidate in Chicago's 1966 mayoral race and in 1968 ran for president as a member of the Freedom and Peace Party. His platform, closely linked to the New Left and Black Power movements, called for civil rights, racial and social justice, and peace in Vietnam. Neither of his campaigns was successful, but they did draw attention to issues that Gregory considered too often overlooked. He earned some two hundred thousand votes for president, mostly write-ins, and was sworn in as "President-in-Exile" by some of his supporters. At his "inauguration" in Washington, D.C., Gregory swore to continue fighting "the insane, stinking, rotten racist system in the United States." He presented his political and social beliefs in The Shadow That Scares Me, No More Lies, and Dick Gregory's Political Primer. Reviewer Charles Dollen found that Gregory "preaches freedom; he teaches it; he satirizes over it, and no one is safe from his keen wit or common sense."

Also in the late 1960s Gregory began changing his personal life to bring it into greater harmony with his political and social convictions. He became a vegetarian because of his dedication to nonviolence, but discovered that the dietary change also put an end to lifelong ulcers and sinus trouble. This discovery led him to carefully research diet and health and eventually adopt outspoken positions on the benefits of vegetarianism and the ill effects of the average American diet. Before long Gregory had quit the nightclub circuit in favor of speaking engagements at churches, schools, and universities. Asked by Lawrence Levy of the Detroit News what prompted the move from nightclubs, Gregory replied, "They take time away from serving humanity." More importantly, the clubs promoted a lifestyle Gregory no longer supported. He has said: "How can I get up there and tell those students that drugs and alcohol and even meat is bad for them, then afterwards say 'come on down and catch my act at the club and have a drink.'"

In the 1970s Gregory began to explore other areas of health care and nutrition; he became interested in fasting and marathon running, activities he has been occasionally able to translate into a call for scrutiny of social issues. He has fasted many times to publicize world hunger, to draw attention to the nation's drug epidemic, and to emphasize the plight of Native Americans. He has run marathons for similar reasons, from Chicago to Washington, D.C., for example, to urge that action be taken by the government to ease world famine. Gregory's unique career has won him substantial attention and admiration. "Gregory's name," wrote Peter Barry Chowka of East West Journal, "is synonymous with progressive social and political causes.… He is that rare combination (like Gandhi) of activist and healer, one whose own life illustrates how real change first must come from within oneself."

America's Conscience

With the passage of time, the angry, wise-cracking, eccentric, outsider activist of the 1960s and 1970s became something of an American institution. Gregory came down so consistently on the side of justice and equality that his speaking out on an issue became a kind of bellwether for the direction of certain progressive political trends. Gregory made an art form out of the politically motivated fast: he fasted to support animal rights, he fasted to protest the racism of the Central Intelligence Agency, he fasted in support of peace in the Middle East, and, in 2004, he fasted for 40 days to protest the child molestation charges filed against his famous friend Michael Jackson. Fasting has not been Gregory's only tool to draw attention to the issues he finds important. He has continued to use public speaking and protest to promote his political agenda as well: he held prayer vigils for victims of racial hatred, in 2002 he worked with other civil rights activists to lobby against naming the FBI headquarters after J. Edgar Hoover, and in 2004, at the age of 73, he was arrested outside the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, D.C., for protesting against the genocide in that African country.

Two of Gregory's greatest tools in his lifelong fight have been his comedy and his writing, and he has used them both in service of his issues. Though he gave up performing comedy in nightclubs and didn't perform at all for many years, in 1996 Gregory returned to the stage with an off-Broadway production called Dick Gregory Live! Reviewers called it one of the best comedic shows in years, and President Bill Clinton remarked "I love Dick Gregory. He is one of the funniest people on the planet," according to the Dick Gregory Web site. Gregory also continued to published books, most notably an updated autobiography called Callus on My Soul.

The issue that was closest to Gregory's heart in the 2000s was cancer. He confided to Jet in 2000 that when his doctors diagnosed him with lymphoma, they told him "You have the worst form of cancer you can have. You cannot operate on it. It's the worst kind." Refusing to accept his doctors' dire prognosis for his survival, Gregory fought against his cancer with diet, vitamins, exercise, and what was characterized on his Web site as "modern devices not even known to the public." Miraculously, by 2005 his cancer had largely gone into remission. As he has done throughout his life, Gregory turned his experience with cancer into fodder for his activism: he lectured widely about the importance of diet in combating cancer and promoted alternative approaches to those typically advocated by Western doctors.

Selected works

Books

From the Back of the Bus, Bob Orben, ed., Dutton, 1962.

(With Robert Lipsyte) Nigger: An Autobiography, Dutton, 1964.

What's Happening?, Dutton, 1965.

The Shadow That Scares Me, James R. McGraw, ed., Doubleday, 1968.

Write Me In!, McGraw, ed., Bantam, 1968.

(Under name Richard Claxton Gregory) No More Lies: The Myth and Reality of American History, edited by McGraw, Harper, 1972.

Dick Gregory's Political Primer, McGraw, ed., Harper, 1972.

Dick Gregory's Natural Diet for folks Who Eat: Cookin' with Mother Nature, Harper, 1973.

Dick Gregory's Bible Tales, McGraw, ed., Stein & Day, 1974.

(With McGraw) Up From Nigger (autobiography), Stein & Day, 1976.

(With Mark Lane) Code Name "Zorro: The Murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.," Prentice-Hall, 1977.

(With Mark Lane) Murder in Memphis: The FBI and the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Thunder's Mouth Press, 1993.

(With Shelia P. Moses) Callus on My Soul: A Memoir, Longstreet Press, 2000.

Albums

In Living Black and White, Colpix, 1961.

The Light Side, the Dark Side, Poppy, 1969.

Live at the Village Gate, Collectables, 1970.

The Best of Dick Gregory, Tomato, 1997.

Other

Sweet Love Bitter (film), Rhapsody Films, 1995.

Sources

Books

Gemme, Leila B., New Breed of Performer, Washington Square Press, 1976.

Gregory, Dick and Robert Lipsyte, Nigger: An Autobiography, Dutton, 1965, new edition with Bronson Dudley, McGraw, 1970.

Gregory, Dick and James R. McGraw, Up from Nigger, Stein & Day, 1976.

Periodicals

Book Week, November 1, 1964.

Book World, July 21, 1968; September 23, 1973; February 19, 1978.

Chicago Tribune, April 16, 2001.

Christian Century, November 27, 1974.

Christian Science Monitor, January 14, 1977.

Detroit News, April 7, 1974.

East West Journal, July 1981.

Ebony, November 1974.

Esquire, November 1961.

Emerge, December 1996.

Essence, August 1979.

Jet, June 5, 2000; December 4, 2000; January 26, 2004.

Los Angeles Times, October 5, 1995.

National Observer, March 17, 1969.

New York Times, September 14, 1961; December 15, 1995.

New York Times Book Review, February 6, 1972; May 13, 1973; December 26, 1976; January 15, 1978.

New York Times Magazine, April 30, 1961.

Progressive, June 1973.

Time, May 17, 1961.

Washington Post, October 9, 2000.

On-line

Dick Gregory, www.dickgregory.com (October 12, 2005).

"Dick Gregory," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (October 12, 2005).

—Joan Goldsworthy and

Tom Pendergast

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Gregory, Dick 1932—

Dick Gregory 1932

Comedian, social activist, nutrition advocate

At a Glance

Perseverance Wore Down a Racist Audience

Elected President-in-Exile

Nutrition and Health Issues Provided Another Passion

Selected writings

Sources

Dick Gregory has made a name for himself in many areas: as an athlete, comedian, civil rights activist, author, nutritionist, and, most recently, as a speaker on peaceful solutions to conflict in the Middle East. Perhaps his greatest success, however, was in overcoming the extreme poverty into which he was born in St. Louis, Missouri. Raised by a single mother who often worked late into the evening, Gregory started hustling early in life, shining shoes and doing odd jobs to help support himself and his many siblings. He was a bright child who wished to excel in school, but circumstances at homeoften no electricity or food made it difficult to study. In Nigger: An Autobiography, Gregory recalled: I got picked on a lot around the neighborhood; skinniest kid on the block, the poorest, the one without a Daddy. I guess thats when I began to learn about humor, the power of a joke. They were going to laugh anyway, but if I made the jokes theyd laugh with me instead of at me. Id get the kids off my back, on my side.

Gregory decided to go out for track in high school because he knew team members had the luxury of hot showers every day after practice. At first the coach wouldnt let him try out, but Gregory refused to accept that decision. Every day while the team ran around inside the field, around the track, I ran outside, around a city block, he remembered. The coach began to let Gregory have the hot showers he craved; by the next year Gregorys personal training regimen earned him a spot on the team. Soon he was setting records and winning championships. Success on the team and the celebrity that went with it provided a welcome relief from the pains of being the poorest kid on a poor block. By senior year Gregory was captain of the track and cross-country teams and his self-esteem had developed enough for him to run for president of his classand win. Gregorys speed and endurance were his ticket into Southern Illinois University, where he continued to set records and win championships. His wins began to seem hollow, however, as he became more and more conscious of the many little injustices he faced daily in the predominantly white university. Track became something different for me in college, he stated. In high school I was fighting being broke and on relief. But in college I was fighting being Negro.

At a Glance

Born October 12, 1932, in St. Louis, MO; son of Presley and Lucille Gregory; married Lillian Smith, February 2, 1959; children: Michele, Lynne, Paula, Pamela, Stephanie, Gregory, Christian, Ayanna, Missy, Youhance. Education: Attended Southern Illinois University, 1951-53, 1955-56.

Roberts Show Club, Chicago, IL, master of ceremonies, 1959-60; entertainer and commentator, 1961; Dick Gregory Health Enterprises, Chicago, chairman, 1984. Lecturer at numerous universities. Candidate for mayor of Chicago, 1966; presidential candidate of Freedom and Peace Party, 1968. Military service: U.S. Army, 1953-56.

Awards: Winner of Missouri Mile championship, 1951 and 1952; Outstanding Athlete award, Southern Illinois University, 1953; Ebony-Topaz Fleritage and Freedom award, 1978; honorary doctorate of humane letters, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, 1989; has received more than one hundred civil rights awards; presented with the key to the city of St. Louis.

Addresses: Home Long Pond Rd., Plymouth, MA 02360. Office Dick Gregory Health Enterprises, 39 South LaSalle, Chicago, IL 60603.

He did some satirical comedy work at a few of the schools variety shows and found performing both exhilarating and frightening. For a while, standing on that stage and watching those people laugh with me, I thought it was even better than winning a track meet, he wrote in Nigger. But running track was safer: You can be saying the funniest thing in the world but if Whitey is mad at you and has hate, he might not laugh. If youre in good condition and you can run faster than Whitey, he can hate all he wants and youll still come out the better man. Gregory began to develop what he called an attitude, which accompanied him into the army when he was drafted in 1954. His wisecracks to superiors led to a confrontation with a colonel who challenged him to win the comedy competition at that nights talent showor face court-martial. Gregory won and was transferred to the armys Special Services entertainment division.

After his discharge from the service Gregory drifted for a while, then headed to Chicago, where he began trying to carve out a name for himself as a comedian. It was a long struggle. He got some low-paying, short-term jobs as host at various black nightclubs, but between these he was forced to work as everything from a postal clerk to a car washer. In 1958 Gregory borrowed some money and opened his own nightclub, the Apex, on the outskirts of the city. The first weekend seemed to forecast a rosy future for the club, but several successive weekends of fierce winter weather kept the crowds away and nearly wiped Gregory out financially; the Apex closed before a full year had passed. Things began to look up in late 1959, however, when he rented the Roberts Show Club in Chicago and organized a party for the Pan American Games. The success of the event and of Gregorys role as its master of ceremonies convinced the owner of the Roberts to hire the young performer as his regular master of ceremonies. The best black acts in the country played the club, which gave Gregory a chance to study and learn from the likes of funnyman Nipsey Russell and song-and-dance legend Sammy Davis, Jr. Unfortunately, the job lasted only a year and for a short time Gregory was back to scrabbling for one-night stands in small clubs. Then, early in 1961, he got the job that changed his life.

Perseverance Wore Down a Racist Audience

Gregorys agent called to say that a replacement was needed for a comic scheduled to work Chicagos Playboy Club. The comedian raced downtown for this prestigious gig, only to be turned away by the clubs booking agent. The explanation was that the room had been booked to a convention of executives from the South who seemed likely to be hostile to a black comedian. Gregory recalled: I was cold and mad and I had run twenty blocks and I didnt even have another quarter to go back home. I told him I was going to do the show they had called me for. I didnt care if he had a lynch mob in that room. Gregory remembered facing the unreceptive crowd: I went all the way back to childhood that night in the Playboy Club, to the smile Momma always had on her face, to the clever way a black boy learns never to let the bitterness inside him show. The audience fought me with dirty, little, insulting statements, but I was faster, and I was funny, and when that room broke it was like the storm was over. They stopped heckling and they listened. What was supposed to be a fifty-minute show lasted for about an hour and forty minutes.

The original one-night contract at the Playboy was extended to a two-month engagement, and Gregorys career took off. Time ran a feature on him, Jack Paar invited him to appear on his television program, and Gregory was soon one of the hottest acts on the nightclub circuit. He became the first black comedian to break the color barrier and perform for white audiences. The key to his comedy success was his satirical approach to race relations and his development of jokes that were about race, but not derogatory. In his autobiography he described his attitude on stage at that time: Tve got to go up there as an individual first, a Negro second. Ive got to be a colored funny man, not a funny colored man. After starting off with several jokes poking fun at himself, he would switch to a topical joke. For instance: They asked me to buy a lifetime membership in the NAACP, but I told them F d pay a week at a time. Hell of a thing to buy a lifetime membership, wake up one morning and find out the countrys been integrated. Having introduced the race issue in a nonthreatening way, Gregory would then confront the audience more pointedly, with a line like: Wouldnt it be a hell of a thing if all this was burnt cork and all you folks were being tolerant for nothing?

Elected President-in-Exile

Deep-rooted concern about political and social issues was evident from the beginning of Gregorys careerin his choice of poverty, segregation, and social injustice as satirical targets. As his fame increased he was able to direct the energy hed previously poured into searching for gigs toward putting his personal convictions into practice. During much of the 1960s Gregory spent his evenings in nightclubs satirizing racism and his days in the street demanding black voting rights. He made appearances at civil rights marches and rallies throughout the United States and performed benefits for SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), CORE (the Congress on Racial Equality), and other agents of social change. At one point he commuted daily from San Francisco to Chicago in order to fulfill a nightclub engagement while participating in a series of demonstrations. He was arrested and jailed several times and was beaten severely by police in a Chicago jail. I wouldnt mind paying my income tax if I knew it was going to a friendly country, he joked during this period.

Concern over Americas social problems finally spurred Gregory to enter electoral politics. He was a candidate in Chicagos 1966 mayoral race and in 1968 ran for president as a member of the Freedom and Peace Party. His platform, closely linked to the New Left and Black Power movements, called for civil rights, racial and social justice, and peace in Vietnam. Neither of his campaigns were successful, but they did draw attention to issues that Gregory considered too often overlooked. He earned some two hundred thousand votes for president, mostly write-ins, and was sworn in as President-in-Exile by some of his supporters. At his inauguration in Washington, D.C., Gregory swore to continue fighting the insane, stinking, rotten racist system in the United States. He presented his political and social beliefs in The Shadow That Scares Me, No More Lies, and Dick Gregorys Political Primer. Reviewer Charles Dollen found that Gregory preaches freedom; he teaches it; he satirizes over it, and no one is safe from his keen wit or common sense.

Nutrition and Health Issues Provided Another Passion

Also in the late 1960s Gregory began changing his personal life to bring it into greater harmony with his political and social convictions. He became a vegetarian because of his dedication to nonviolence, but discovered that the dietary change also put an end to lifelong ulcers and sinus trouble. This discovery led him to carefully research diet and health and eventually adopt outspoken positions on the benefits of vegetarianism and the ill effects of the average American diet. Before long Gregory had quit the nightclub circuit in favor of speaking engagements at churches, schools, and universities. Asked by Lawrence Levy of the Detroit News what prompted the move from nightclubs, Gregory replied, They take time away from serving humanity. More importantly, the clubs promoted a lifestyle Gregory no longer supported. He has said: How can I get up there and tell those students that drugs and alcohol and even meat is bad for them, then afterwards say come on down and catch my act at the club and have a drink.

In the 1970s Gregory began to explore other areas of health care and nutrition; he became interested in fasting and marathon running, activities he has been occasionally able to translate into a call for scrutiny of social issues. He has fasted many times to publicize world hunger, to draw attention to the nations drug epidemic, and to emphasize the plight of Native Americans. He has run marathons for similar reasons, from Chicago to Washington, D.C., for example, to urge that action be taken by the government to ease world famine. Gregorys unique career has won him substantial attention and admiration. Gregorys name, wrote Peter Barry Chowka of East West Journal, is synonymous with progressive social and political causes. He is that rare combination (like Gandhi) of activist and healer, one whose own life illustrates how real change first must come from within oneself.

Selected writings

From the Back of the Bus, edited by Bob Orben, with an introduction by Hugh M. Hefner, Dutton, 1962.

(With Robert Lipsyte) Nigger: An Autobiography, Dutton, 1964.

Whats Happening?, Dutton, 1965.

The Shadow That Scares Me, edited by James R. McGraw, Doubleday, 1968.

Write Me in!, edited by McGraw, Bantam, 1968.

(Under name Richard Claxton Gregory) No More Lies: The Myth and Reality of American History, edited by McGraw, Harper, 1972.

Dick Gregorys Political Primer, edited by McGraw, Harper, 1972.

Dick Gregorys Natural Diet for Folks WhoEat: Cookin with Mother Nature, Harper, 1973.

Dick Gregorys Bible Tales, edited by McGraw, Stein & Day, 1974.

(With McGraw) Up from Nigger (autobiography), Stein & Day, 1976.

(With Mark Lane) Code Name Zorro: The Murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., Prentice-Hall, 1977.

Also creator of comedy routines featured on a number of recordings, including In Living Black and White, Colpix, 1961, The Light Side, the Dark Side, Poppy, 1969, Caught in the Act, Poppy, 1973, Dick Gregory East and West, and Dick Gregory at Kent State.

Sources

Books

Gemme, Leila B., New Breed of Performer, Washington Square Press, 1976.

Gregory, Dick, and Robert Lipsyte, Nigger: An Autobiography, Dutton, 1965, new edition with Bronson Dudley, McGraw, 1970.

Gregory, Dick, and James R. McGraw, Up from Nigger, Stein & Day, 1976.

Periodicals

Best Sellers, February 1, 1968; May T5, 1972.

Booklist, November 15, 1976.

Book Week, November 1, 1964.

Book World, July 21, 1968; September 23, 1973; February 19, 1978.

Christian Century, November 27, 1974.

Christian Science Monitor, January 14, 1977.

Detroit News, April 7, 1974.

East West Journal, July 1981.

Ebony, November 1974.

Esquire, November 1961.

Essence, August 1979.

Library Journal, January 15, 1968.

National Observer, March 17, 1969.

New York Times, September 14, 1961.

New York Times Book Review, February 6, 1972; May 13, 1973; December 26, 1976; January 15, 1978.

New York Times Magazine, April 30, 1961.

Progressive, June 1973.

Time, May 17, 1961.

Joan Goldsworthy

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Gregory, Dick 1932—." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 17 Oct. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Gregory, Dick 1932—." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/gregory-dick-1932

"Gregory, Dick 1932—." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved October 17, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/gregory-dick-1932

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Dick Gregory

Dick Gregory

A renown comedian, Dick Gregory (born 1932) used his wit and humor to advance his deep interest in civil rights and world peace.

Dick Gregory was born Richard Claxton Gregory on October 12, 1932, into poverty and deprivation in St. Louis, Missouri. In some ways his humble beginnings fueled the topical racial comedy which catapulted him into fame in the 1960s. He attended Southern Illinois University in Carbondale from 1951 to 1956. In 1953 he received the school's Outstanding Athlete Award.

By 1958 Gregory was making his debut in show business by appearing at the Esquire and Roberts show clubs in Chicago and at the Club Apex in nearby Robbins, Illinois. His regular appearances on television included the Jack Paar and Mike Douglas shows which made him one of the best known Blacks in America. The radicalization which transformed many Americans during the 1960s led Gregory to see things in a global perspective. Many of his public appearances started to combine comedy with political commentary. He became an outspoken opponent of American involvement in Vietnam and of racial as well as ethnic discrimination in America and elsewhere.

In the United States Gregory was one of the first modern spokespersons to suggest that the Census Bureau undercounts minorities, particularly in large cities. In 1966, through a series of fund-raisers, he shipped 10,000 pounds of navy beans to Marks, Mississippi, to feed hungry people. In addition, he advocated large families as a way to both counter and protest racism.

Internationally, Gregory was a major leader of the antiwar movement. He traveled to France to protest French involvement in Indo-China and to Northern Ireland to advise Irish Republican Army (IRA) political protesters on techniques for fasting. In his campaign against hunger he traveled to Ethiopia more than ten times. In 1968 the Peace and Freedom Party nominated him as its presidential candidate in recognition of his efforts to make the world a better place.

In 1981 Gregory—who formerly weighed 350 pounds, smoked four packs of cigarettes and drank a fifth of Scotch a day—put his dietary knowledge to the test. In the planning stages for more than six years, he conducted "the longest medically supervised scientific fast in the history of the planet." During this "Dick Gregory's Zero Nutrition Fasting Experiment" he lived on a gallon of water and prayer for 70 days at Dillard University's Flint-Goodridge Hospital. Upon its completion, he demonstrated his good health by walking and jogging the 100 miles between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. From this experiment he created his "4-X Fasting Formula," which included a "Life-Centric Monitor" and an emphasis on colonetics. The fast also indicated that the body can prolong the time it can go without food.

Gregory announced a vow of celibacy in 1981. As the father of ten children and a former performer of a risqué night club act, this news was somewhat surprising. It was a part of a philosophy of life which sought to switch from the animal to the divine nature of man.

In his concern for health and nutrition, he came to believe that agricultural resources exist to assure each man, woman, and child a chemically safe, nutritionally sound, and physiologically efficient diet. Multi-level distribution rights to his nutrition formula—Dick Gregory's Slim-safe Bahamian Diet—were sold for a reported $100 million when the special formulation became commercially available in August of 1984. Articles in People and USA Today made the diet a favorite among the general public. Gregory lamented the lack of health food stores in Black communities and sought to promote an awareness of the importance of natural foods and the dangers of the traditional soul food diet. He believes because their diets and lifestyles tend to include higher than average amounts of salt, sugar, cholesterol, alcohol and drugs that Blacks have a shorter life expectancy.

A large percentage of the profits from the sales of products developed by the Dick Gregory Health Enterprise in Chicago was earmarked for the poor and for Black civil rights groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the United Negro College Fund, and the Rosa Parks Foundation. In addition, Gregory acquired a major interest in the Frankie Jennings Cosmetics Company to fulfill his dream of marketing products such as vitamins, shampoo, juices, and cookies. Howard and Xavier universities were researching and testing sites for his products. Another campaign was to inform the public about the ills of alcohol, caffeine, and drug consumption.

Dick Gregory was a deeply spiritual man but was not limited to any traditional religion or formulized dogma. Instead, he advocated the attainment of oneness with a "Godself," which he believed was the most complete state of being. He advocated a holistic approach to life through diet, fitness, and spiritual awareness.

Even at 64 Gregory was still doing his one-man stand up comedy show, Dick Gregory, LIVE! As late as 1996 he was opening in Chicago. In March of 1997 he was the fifth annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Guestship speaker at Elmhurst College. He credited much of his success to the support and trust of his wife Lillian (Lil), whom he married in 1959.

Further Reading

There is no published biography of Dick Gregory. He has, however, written extensively of himself and his beliefs in Nigger: An Autobiography (1964). Two magazine articles of interest are "My Answer to Genocide," Ebony (October 1981) and a discussion of his 4-X Formula in Black Enterprise (May 1985). Gregory has published the following books: From the Back of the Bus (1962); What's Happening (1965); The Shadow That Scares Me (1968); Write Me In (1968); No More Lies (1971); Dick Gregory's Political Primer (1972); Dick Gregory's Natural Diet … Nature (1973); Up From Nigger (1976); and Dick Gregory's Bible Tales (1978).

Additional Sources

Newsmakers 1990, issue 3.

Chicago Tribune, "Comedian-activist set to speak at college," 2/16/97; "Long Comedy Club Absence Hasn't Dulled Dick Gregory," 08/24/96.

Village Voice, 1/16/96, Vol. 41 Issue 3, p64.

Amsterdam News, 11/23/96, Vol. 87 Issue 47, p30. □

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Gregory, Dick

Gregory, Dick

October 12, 1932


Comedian, activist, and rights advocate Richard Claxton Gregory was born and raised in a St. Louis slum. Abandoned by his father when he was a child, Gregory worked at odd jobs to help support his family. In high school he distinguished himself as a talented runner and demonstrated the quick wit and gift for satire that would ultimately catapult him toward stardom. With the aid of an athletic scholarship, he attended Southern Illinois University at Carbondale (19511954 and 1956), where he became a leading track star and began to dream of becoming a comedian.

Drafted into the army in 1954, Gregory returned briefly to Carbondale after completing his term of service in 1956 and then traveled to Chicago to pursue his goal of becoming a comedian. He admired and was influenced by Timmie Rogers, Slappy White, and Nipsey Russell. In the late 1950s Gregory worked in small black clubs like the Esquire Show Lounge, where he met his future wife, Lillian Smith, and struggled to gain popular recognition. His efforts won him a cameo appearance in Cast the First Stone, a 1959 ABC television documentary.

Gregory's breakthrough occurred in January 1961, when the Playboy Club in Chicago hired him to replace the unexpectedly ill white comedian "Professor" Irwin Corey. Gregory's bold, ironic, cool, and detached humor completely disarmed and converted his audience, which included many white southern conventioneers. After this success, his contract with the Playboy Club was quickly extended from several weeks to three years. Against the backdrop of the intensifying pace of the civil rights movement Gregory's candid, topical humor signaled a new relationship between African-American comedians and white mainstream audiences. By 1962 he had become a national celebrity and the first black comic superstar in the modern era, opening the doors for countless black comedians. He also became an author, publishing From the Back of the Bus (1962) and, with Robert Lipsyte, Nigger: An Autobiography (1964).

His celebrity status secured, Gregory emerged as an outspoken political activist during the 1960s. As an avid supporter of the civil rights movement, he participated in voter registration drives throughout the South, marched in countless parades and demonstrations, and was arrested numerous times. He also began to entertain at prisons and for civil rights organizations, using his biting humor as a powerful tool to highlight racism and inequality in the United States. The assassinations of John. F. Kennedy, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others led Gregory to believe in the existence of a large framework of conspiracies to thwart civil rights and liberties in the United States. He took to the lecture circuit, espousing the ideas of Mark Lane, a leading conspiracy theorist.

Gregory found numerous ways to dramatize his chosen causes. He fasted for lengthy periods to demonstrate his commitment to civil rights and to protest the Vietnam War, the abuse of narcotics, and world hunger. In 1967 he campaigned unsuccessfully in a write-in effort to be mayor of Chicago, and in 1968 he was the presidential candidate for the U.S. Freedom and Peace Party, a split-off faction within the Peace and Freedom party, whose candidate for president in 1968 was Eldridge Cleaver. By the late 1960s Gregory was increasingly devoting his attention to the youth of America, lecturing at hundreds of college campuses each year and making fewer and fewer night club appearances; he released his last comedy album, Caught in the Act, in 1973.

During the 1970s Gregory wrote several books, including No More Lies: The Myth and Reality of American History (published as by Richard Claxton Gregory with James R. McGraw, 1971); Code Name Zorro: The Murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. (with Mark Lane, 1971); and Dick Gregory's Political Primer (1972). After moving with his wife and ten children to a farm in Massachusetts in 1973, he became a well-known advocate of vegetarianism. Often limiting himself to a regimen of fruit and juices, he became a nutritional consultant, often appearing on talk shows in his new role, and wrote (with Alvenia Fulton) Dick Gregory's Natural Diet for Folks Who Eat, Cookin' with Mother Nature (1974). He also wrote Up from Nigger with James R. McGraw, the second installment of his autobiography (1976).

In 1984 Gregory founded Health Enterprises, Inc., successfully marketing various weight-loss products. Three years later he introduced the Slim-Safe Bahamian Diet, a powdered diet mix that proved extremely popular, and expanded his financial holdings to hotels and other properties. These economic successes were abruptly reversed after the failure of a financing deal and conflicts with his business partners. Gregory was evicted from his Massachusetts home in 1992. In the same year, he returned to his hometown of St. Louis to organize the Campaign for Human Dignity, whose stated purpose was to reclaim predominantly African-American neighborhoods from drug dealers and prostitutes. In October 1993 Gregory was arrested for illegally campingalong with members of his "Dignity Patrol"in a crime-ridden park in Washington, D.C. In 1993 he also coauthored, with Mark Lane, Murder in Memphis, another book about the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 1995 Gregory staged a hunger strike to protest the Republican welfare reform bills, and in 1998 he joined conservative Republicans to demand an investigation of the "murder" of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown. During the mid-1990s, he also returned to performing, notably in a limited run off-Broadway show, Dick Gregory Live, in October 1995.

After Gregory achieved the pinnacle of success in the world of stand-up comedy, he made a decision to place his celebrity status in the service of his fierce and uncompromising commitment to human rights. Throughout the various shifts and turns of his career for more than three decades, he has kept faith with those commitments.

As part of his commitment to human rights, Gregory was arrested in July 2004 as he protested outside the Sudanese Embassy in New York. Gregory, along with other well-known activists, was protesting the Sudanese government's support of its militia, who were killing hundreds of black Africans daily.

See also Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Comedians

Bibliography

Gregory, Dick, with Martin Lipsyte. Nigger: An Autobiography. New York: Dutton, 1964.

Gregory, Dick, with James R. McGraw. Up from Nigger. New York: Stein and Day, 1976.

Gregory, Dick, with Sheila P. Moses. Callus on my Soul. Atlanta, Ga.: Longstreet Press, 2000.

Hendra, Tony. Going Too Far. New York: Doubleday, 1987.

Watkins, Mel. On the Real Side: Laughing, Lying and SignifyingThe Underground Tradition of African-American Humor That Transformed American Culture from Slavery to Richard Pryor. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.

james a. miller (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005

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Gregory, Dick

GREGORY, Dick

GREGORY, Dick. American, b. 1932. Genres: Civil liberties/Human rights, Race relations, Social commentary. Career: Comedian and civil rights activist. President, Dick Gregory Enterprises, Chicago. Publications: From the Back of the Bus, 1964; Nigger, 1964; What's Happening, 1965; The Shadow That Scares Me, 1971; Write Me In, 1971; No More Lies, 1971; Dick Gregory's Political Primer, 1971; Natural Diet, 1973; Up from Nigger, 1976; (with M. Lane) Code Name Zorro: The Murder of Martin Luther King, 1971; Dick Gregory's Bible Tales, 1978; Murder in Memphis, 1992; Callus on My Soul, 2000.

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