Dick Gregory was the first black performer to sit down and be interviewed, as a white performer would be, after his set on The Tonight Show Starring Jack Paar in 1961. On August 19, 2017, upon hearing of Gregory’s death, Dave Chapelle told his audience in Radio City Music Hall he would not be standing on that stage had it not been for Dick Gregory. For the second time, a black person changed US history simply by demanding their right to take a seat. Dick Gregory paved the way for comedic geniuses like Chappelle, Chris Rock, Bill Cosby, and Richard Pryor; all who used comedy to shine a light on the absurdity of racism.
Dick Gregory, born in St. Louis, October 12, 1932, is certainly best known for his biting and witty comedy, a talent he found after he was drafted in 1954 from Southern Illinois University. He returned to the University after his service, then soon continued to pursue a career in comedy, working for the Postal Service during the day. His big break came when Hugh Hefner saw him perform at the Roberts Show Bar, and hired him for the Playboy Club. It was during this time Gregory caught the attention of Paar at The Tonight Show who eventually personally called Gregory to ask why he had so far refused the invitation to appear on the show. Gregory told Paar he would appear only if he were treated the same way as the white entertainers, and invited to sit down with Paar after his routine. Gregory and Paar made history.
Gregory’s career turned to one of activism and service in the 60’s. He was moved by the myriad social injustices he observed in the world, beginning with racism in the states and expanding out to include the Iran hostage crisis, Northern Ireland IRA prisoners, and poverty in Ethiopia. In the United States, Gregory joined with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma in 1963 to speak before Freedom Day. He was arrested after speaking, but was released and joined the march the next day. In 1965, Gregory was shot in the knee helping police restore order after the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles. He was not afraid to put his body and life on the line to promote social change. In 1978, a self-proclaimed and outspoken feminist, Gregory joined with the heavy hitters of his day, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, Margaret Heckler, and Barbara Mikulski and 100,000 people to lead the National ERA March for Ratification and Extension down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Gregory employed public fasting as a tactic in his fight for social justice. His first fast in 1967 was in protest of the Vietnam War, and lasted for 40 days. At the end of the fast he was 97 pounds. In 1968 he fasted for 45 days in support of Native Americans. In 1969 he fasted for 45 days protesting the defacto segregation of Chicago public schools. In 1970 he fasted for 81 days to bring attention to the narcotics epidemic sweeping inner cities. And, in 1971 Gregory began a 3 year stint without consuming solid food During this time, he also ran 900 miles from Chicago to DC to again protest Vietnam.
In 1968 Gregory, every thinking outside the box, ran for President against Nixon and to bring attention to the problems with the two party system. He garnered 47,000 write-in votes. He also narrowly escaped being jailed by the Treasury for printing money with his face on it to promote his campaign. In his book, Write Me In, Gregory writes sarcastically about the absurdity of the Treasury’s threat of arrest, “Everyone knows the black man will never be on a US bill.” Dick Gregory was intent on using all tactics at his disposal to force social justice issues. He was tireless in his pursuit of a peaceful existence.
In a 2001 Interview with Democracy Now! Gregory explained the title to his then latest book, Callus on My Soul, came from the experience of poor black people, who could not afford good shoes and thus developed calluses- “a callus will wear out a shoe before the shoe wears out the foot that was made by God.” Gregory wrote about the strength created by growing up black in the United States. Callus was the second autobiographical book Gregory wrote, after the wildly popular nigger, published in 1964. He has written or contributed to 25 books. His last book, Defining Moments in Black History: Reading Between the Lies, was published posthumously, September 5, 2017.
After a lifetime of growing up in and fighting the most egregious, bombastic- for its unapologetic openness- conspiracy known; institutionalized American racism, Gregory’s later years were fraught with the specter of conspiracies from every corner. Starting with his first protest in high school, fighting for the replacement of aging black high schools in his district of St. Louis, Richard Claxton Gregory’s life’s work was standing between the people and the governments that held them hostage- in chains or in poverty- he lived in and left this world as a warrior.