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Dick Gregory Biography - Found Humor in Adversity, Hit It Big as Comedian, From Humorist to Activist

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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

Frederick D. Gregory Biography - Pursued Education And Adventure, Tested Cutting-edge Aircraft, First Black To Pilot American Spacecraft [next]

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