Dick Gregory, the black comedian who broke down racial barriers in the 1960s and used humour to spread messages of social justice, has
Gregory’s son, Christian, said his father died late on Saturday in Washington, DC after having been hospitalised for about a week. He had suffered a severe bacterial infection.
The family posted a message on his Twitter account saying it was with “enormous sadness” that they confirmed the death of their father, “a comedic legend”.
Gregory was one of the first black comedians to find mainstream success with white audiences in the early 1960s. He rose from an impoverished childhood in St. Louis to become a celebrated satirist who deftly commented upon racial divisions at the dawn of the civil rights movement.
“Where else in the world but America,” he joked, “could I have lived in the worst neighborhoods, attended the worst schools, rode in the back of the bus, and get paid $5,000 a week just for talking about it?”
Gregory’s sharp commentary soon led him into civil rights activism, where his ability to woo audiences through humor helped bring national attention to fledgling efforts at integration and social equality for blacks.
The Rev Al Sharpton said on Twitter that he had known Gregory since he was 16 and mourned “a true, committed, and consistent freedom fighter”.
Democratic senator Cory Booker of New Jersey tweeted: “Dick Gregory’s unflinching honesty & courage, inspired us to fight, live, laugh & love despite it all.”
Actress and comedian Whoopi Goldberg said on Twitter: “About being black in America Dick Gregory has passed away, Condolences to his family and to us who won’t have his insight 2 lean on R.I.P”
In a varied career, Gregory briefly sought political office, running unsuccessfully for mayor of Chicago in 1966 and US president in 1968, when he got 200,000 votes as the Peace and Freedom party candidate.
In the late 60s, he befriended John Lennon and was among the voices heard on Lennon’s anti-war anthem Give Peace a Chance, recorded in the Montreal hotel room where Lennon and Yoko Ono were staging a “bed-in” for peace.
An admirer of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, Gregory embraced nonviolence and became a vegetarian and marathon runner.
The King Center tweeted that Gregory had “provoked us to think and to change. And he made us laugh, too”.
Besides politics, Gregory preached about the transformative powers of prayer and good health. Once an overweight smoker and drinker, he became a trim, energetic proponent of liquid meals and raw food diets. In the late 1980s, he developed and distributed products for the popular Slim-Safe Bahamian Diet.
When diagnosed with lymphoma in 2000, he fought it with herbs, exercise and vitamins. It went into remission a few years later.
He took a break from performing in comedy clubs, saying the alcohol and smoke in the clubs were unhealthy, and focused on lecturing and writing more than a dozen books, including an autobiography and a memoir.
Gregory went without solid food for weeks to draw attention to a wide range of causes, including Middle East peace, American hostages in Iran, animal rights, police brutality, the Equal Rights Amendment for women and to support pop singer Michael Jackson when he was charged with sexual molestation in 2004.
“We thought I was going to be a great athlete, and we were wrong, and I thought I was going to be a great entertainer, and that wasn’t it either. I’m going to be an American Citizen. First class,” he once said.
Richard Claxton Gregory was born in 1932, the second of six children. His father abandoned the family, leaving his mother poor and struggling. Though the family often went without food or electricity, Gregory’s intellect and hard work quickly earned him honors, and he attended the mostly white Southern Illinois University.
“In high school I was fighting being broke and on relief,” he wrote in 1963. “But in college, I was fighting being Negro.”
He started winning talent contests for his comedy, which he continued in the Army. After he was discharged, he struggled to break into the standup circuit in Chicago, working odd jobs as a postal clerk and car washer to survive. His breakthrough came in 1961, when he was asked to fill in for another comedian at Chicago’s Playboy Club. His audience, mostly white Southern businessmen, heckled him with racist gibes, but he stuck it out for hours and left them howling