Comedian And Civil Rights Activist Dick Gregory Dies At 84

Dick Gregory

Dick Gregory, the comedian and civil rights crusader, died Saturday.

He was 84.

His family announced the news on his public Facebook page.

“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 said in the post.

“The family appreciates the outpouring of support and love and respectfully asks for their privacy as they grieve during this very difficult time.

More details will be released over the next few days.”

Gregory, who was recently in and out of the hospital, died following a severe bacterial infection.

NPR has not independently confirmed the cause of death.

Gregory gained attention as a comedian in the early 1960s, and was the first black comedian to widely win plaudits from white audiences.

Darryl Littleton, author of the book Black Comedians on Black Comedy, told NPR in 2009 that Gregory broke barriers with his appearances on television, just by sitting down:

“Dick Gregory is the first to recognized and he’ll say it the first black comedian to be able to stand flat-footed, and just delivered comedy.

You had other comedians back then but they always had to do a little song or a dance or whatever, Sammy Davis had to dance and sing, and then tell jokes.

Same with Pearl Bailey and some of the other comedians.

But Dick Gregory was able to grow on television, sit down on the Jack Paar show and sit on the couch and actually have a discussion, and that it never happened in the history of television.”

Gregory

“opened the door”

for Bill Cosby to rise to fame, Littleton said.

He was noted for his political and social activism, beginning in the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

He attended the historic 1963 March on Washington.

Forty years later, Gregory told Tavis Smiley on NPR about his experience at the march, describing it as

“joy. It was festivity, and as far as the human eye could see.”

Gregory talked in 2003 about his experience trying to integrate a restaurant in Mississippi before the march, showing he could inject some humor into a serious story:

“We tried to integrate a restaurant, and they said, `We don’t serve colored folk here,’ and I said, `Well, I don’t eat colored folk nowhere.

Bring me some pork chops.’

And then Ku Klux Klan come in, and the woman say, `We don’t have no pork chops,’ so I say, `Well, bring me a whole fried chicken.’

And then the Klan walked up to me when they put that whole fried chicken in front of me, and they say, `Whatever you do to that chicken, boy, we’re going to do to you.’

So I opened up its legs and kissed it in the rump and tell you all, `Be my guest.’ “

co-wrote with Robert Lipsyte the book nigger: An Autobiography — the “n” is lowercase — in 1964. Gregory explained to NPR why he chose that title:

“So this word ‘nigger’ was one of the most well-used words in America, particularly among black folks. And I said, `Well, let’s pull it out the closet.

Let’s lay it out here. Let’s deal with it.

Let’s dissect it.’

Now the problem I have today is people call it the N-word.

It should never be called the N-word.

You see, how do you talk about a swastika by using another term?”

Gregory called the U.S.

“the number-one most racist system on the planet. … And I hope that America is willing to take this shoe of racism off and deal with racism and deal with sexism.”

He ran for mayor of Chicago in 1967 and ran for president in 1968 under the Freedom and Peace Party.

He was on the ballot in eight states and got 47,133 votes, as Ken Rudin wrotefor NPR.

“I have a lot of newsmen asking me strange questions,”

Gregory told a group of students at the University of California at Los Angeles on April 24.

“Like for instance, ‘Mr. Gregory, if you were elected president of the United States, what is the first thing you would do?’”

The punchline:

“I thought the whole world knew if I was elected president of this country, the first thing I’d do is paint the White House black.”

A few nervous laughs, scattered claps.

“The second thing I’d do is bring all the boys home from Vietnam,”

Gregory announced.

“And send LBJ.”

Gregory’s caustic style, marrying humor and hard truths about race and politics, was the main theme of the tributes that popped up in the wake of the news of his death over the weekend at age 84.

But during the chaotic summer feeding into the 1968 election, Gregory’s strong critique drilled to the heart of the political system.

“I feel that the two party system is obsolete,”

he said in another 1968 interview.

“The two party system is so corrupt and immoral, they cannot solve the problems confronting the masses of the people in this country.”

Gregory’s radical criticism was also putting him in a dangerous spot.

As he campaigned, the comic fell into the paranoid crosshairs of J. Edgar Hoover, and the FBI director concocted a strange plan to potentially “neutralize” Gregory with the help of the Mafia.

The scheme would not emerge publicly until 10 years later, when files related to the bureau’s controversial surveillance activities on black radical and civil rights groups were first released.

“Do you realize what you have here?”

Gregory said in 1978 when presented with Hoover memos tied to the effort.

“This piece of paper has the director of the most powerful police agency in the history of this planet proposing to contact this Mafia so they could work together.”

According to a 1978 account in The Washington Post, a month after Gregory’s 1968 appearance at UCLA, Hoover sent a memo to Martin W. Johnson, the head of the Chicago FBI office, instructing the agent to

“develop counterintelligence measure to neutralize”

the comedian.

Gregory was married for more than 50 years and had 10 children. His daughter Ayanna Gregory released a song called “A Ballad For My Father” in 2007.

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