Dick Gregory, the pioneering standup comedian and civil rights activist who made his advocacy work a key component of his on-stage persona, died Saturday night in Washington, D.C. He was 84.
Gregory’s death was confirmed by his family in an Instagram post.
“The family appreciates the outpouring of support and love and respectfully asks for their privacy as they grieve during this very difficult time,” read the post from son Christian Gregory.
Gregory was active on the standup and public speaking circuit on and off for more than a half-century. He had recently been making comedy appearances until he was hospitalized on Aug. 9. Gregory recently released a new book, “Defining Moments in Black History: Reading Between the Lies,” and he recently penned a guest column for Variety about how communities can band together to end police brutality.
Gregory made his mark in the early 1960s as a rare African-American comedian who was a success in nightclubs geared to white audiences. One his breaks famously came in 1960 when he was invited by Playboy founder Hugh Hefner to perform at his Playboy Lounge in Chicago.
Gregory was known for his folksy delivery and for incorporating commentary about segregation and discrimination into his routines. During this period he released a number of successful spoken word albums, notably 1961’s “In Living Black and White,” 1962’s “Talks Turkey,” 1964’s “So You See … We All Have Problems” and 1968’s “The Two Sides of Dick Gregory.” In 1964, his autobiography was published with the provcative title: “N—-: An Autobiography.”
By the mid-1960s, after his friend and fellow activist Medgar Evers was murdered, Gregory turned his focus to full-time work as an activist with Martin Luther King Jr. and others. He was vocal advocate for the rights of African-Americans and Native Americans, and he was an early opponent of the Vietnam war and South Africa’s apartheid. Gregory tried his hand at politics, running unsuccessfully for mayor of Chicago in 1967 and mounting a presidential bid in 1968.
A native of St. Louis, Gregory was one of six children who were abandoned in childhood by their father. He became a track star in high school, which led him to a scholarship Southern Illinois University in 1951. He left the school after his mother died in 1953 and was drafted into the Army. His comedy career was kindled during his time in the service, where he first performed in talent shows and variety shows.
In the 1970’s, Gregory became active in the cause of world hunger and nutritional advocacy. He developed a popular weight-loss regimen known as the Bahamian diet, and for a time had his own line of nutritional supplements.