In the '60s his race-based comedy made him stand out, paving the way for comedians.
In a pivotal time for America when issues of race are at the forefront, it's even more pronounced that comedian and lifelong civil rights activist Dick Gregory has passed away.
"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," Christian Gregory, the comedian's son said in a statement posted to Instagram on Saturday.
"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."
On Tuesday the 84-year-old cancelled a show with Paul Mooney in Atlanta due to illness, sharing that he was hospitalized but the "prognosis was excellent". There's no word of the cause of death but Gregory was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2000 but declared himself cancer-free soon after.
Richard Claxton Gregory was born on October 12, 1932, in St. Louis, Missouri into what's been described as "crippling poverty" during the Depression. In 1954 he was drafted into the army where he served the country but also made his fellow comrades laugh through stand-up performances. Once he returned from service, he moved to Chicago where he did small comedy shows while working for the U.S. Postal Service.
Gregory's talent finally afforded him a big break in 1961 at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club where he performed in front of white executives —a first for an African-American comedian. In the '60s his race-based comedy made him stand out, paving the way for comedians like Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor and Mooney.
“Greg opened the door,” Foxx told The New York Times in 1961. “Somebody had to be first. There’s room for all of us. He can’t work Pittsburgh and Glocca Morra the same night.”
Aside from comedy, Gregory's activism runs deep having first protested in high school against segregation. Many a battle was fought by the activist leading him to be shot in the leg, go on a hunger strike, be arrested and lose work due to his convictions. In his lifetime Gregory fought against the Vietnam War, for women's rights, Native-American rights, against apartheid in South Africa and, of course, Civil Rights for African-Americans.
He most notably ran and lost for mayor of Chicago in 1967 and president of the United States through the Freedom and Peace Party in 1968. But the losses never slowed down his message of equal rights for all.
"I don’t believe in hope," Gregory told Democracy Now in a 2012 interview. "We got in outer space; there wasn’t hope. We made rockets; there wasn’t hope. You bring in the hardcore scientists and shine a light on it and say, 'We have to do this.' If I had a brain tumor, I don’t hope it’s going to get out; I’m going to ask you who’s the best brain surgeon here, and I’ll go to him. And that’s what’s going to happen."
Noting, "It’s the fear that make people scared of doing things, 'I’m scared I’ll lose my job. I’m scared I’m going to do this here.' And that’s not will make the difference."
In addition to his wife of 58 years Lillian, Gregory is survived by children Ayanna, Yohance, Stephanie, Miss, Christian, Michele, Pamela, Paula, Lynne and Gregory.