As monuments of men who fought to enslave Africans fall across America, a far more honorable figure of American history has passed beyond this crazy world.
Dick Gregory, born October 12, 1932, thrived in America as an activist, artist and intellectual until the day of his death, Saturday (August 19). His family has not released the specifics of the medical situation that claimed his life at age 84, but in an Instagram post shared to Gregory’s official account, his son confirmed that the comedy legend passed in Washington D.C., after being hospitalized and postponing an upcoming show with Paul Mooney.
Throughout his life, Gregory challenged white supremacy fearlessly, never folding to suit a hidden agenda. His undying loyalty to Black people will live forever in his comedy routines, social activism and deep catalog of interviews. In dozens of recent YouTube videos, he seamlessly connected threads of the blatant racism he was born into with the more subtle modern threads America cloaks its hatred in today. Whether you take his wisdom as prophecy or conspiracy depends on your experiences. His are well-documented.
Gregory was raised in Missouri, the last state to side with the Confederacy in the Civil War. And he was still alive when Mike Brown was murdered by Ferguson, Mo. police in 2014. Gregory was about six years old when Adolf Hitler instigated World War II. And he soon grew to become a stand-out sprinter, earning a track and field scholarship to Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where he became a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Incorporated.
But in 1954, ten years before racial discrimination became illegal in the United States, Gregory was drafted into the U.S. Army. The success he found making his fellow soldiers laugh gave him the idea to pursue a career in comedy after service. He was discharged and returned to SIU, but dropped out after realizing that the university “didn’t want me to study, they wanted me to run.”
Gregory moved on to Chicago and became a postal worker while also trying to break out as a comedian. He’s said that his unapologetic pro-Blackness was rooted in the loyalty he felt to the Black crowds that helped him shape his early routines. He said in a recent interview, “(Black folks) listened to me when I wasn’t funny and when they got through listening, they pushed me all the way downtown where they couldn’t afford to come see me. So I got to go back. I have to go back.”
Those deep roots never allowed him to chase America’s validation or permission as a performer, writer or activist. Along with Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby and Nipsey Russell, Gregory blazed a trail for Black comedy that went beyond America’s minstrel tradition. He spoke on current events, with a sharp wit that proved white supremacy wrong with each stab. As he told Boston Globe in 2000, “It was the first time they had seen a black comic who was not bucking his eyes, wasn’t dancing and singing and telling mother-in-law jokes. Just talking about what I read in the newspaper.”
Gregory officially crossed over in 1961, after smashing a performance at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club. He was soon on national television broadcasts. That same year, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested after leading seven hundred peaceful demonstrators through Albany, Ga. to protest segregation.
The larger his name got as a comedian, the more he was willing to put in on the line for the cause of Black liberation.
Gregory also marched against segregated schools and to register voters in the south. The larger his name got as a comedian, the more willing he was to put in on the line for the cause of Black liberation.
He wasn’t too shy to admit that he never considered himself a family man; instead, he dedicated himself more fully to activism than domestic life. Still, he married Lillian Smith in 1959 and had 11 children. Last week, his son, Christian Gregory, asked his dad’s Instagram followers for their prayers for “a life well-lived but heavily sacrificed,” saying Gregory’s hard-fought 84 years had “definitively taken (a) toll.” He added, “laughter is truly good medicine. I’ve watched my father for a lifetime heal the world.” He surely tried. In 1968 he was the first Black man to run for President, running as an independent.
Gregory first started cracking jokes to fend off bullies as a kid. But while his humor quickly elevated him to fortune and fame, he rejected the American dream being sold in advertisements for a more fulfilling existence. He quit stand-up for a time because the nightclub scene conflicted with his anti-drug stance. In 1993, he told The New York Times, “I got out of comedy because I saw a conflict in saying to young folks that drugs and alcohol are bad and then coming to a nightclub and having a taste. I decided I would not take this God-given talent any further in an atmosphere where people could drink or smoke.”
Always one to walk like he talked, Gregory faced charges for resisting drugs in Shreveport, La. during the height of the crack epidemic. In 1989, he and activists camped out in parks and harassed local businesses who were exposed for selling drug paraphernalia.
And he fought just as fearlessly until his last days. At 84, he didn’t sit idly as Donald Trump used neo-Nazi and modern Jim Crow tactics to rile white America into electing him president. A simple Google search of the name “Dick Gregory interview” reveals dozens of prophetic warnings about the rise of Trump, police brutality and modern white supremacy over the past five years. He was always quick to yell at dimwitted interviewers who weren’t leading the discussion correctly because he was in such a rush to drop the many jewels he’d gathered on his long journey.
Much of his wisdom is coded in symbols, the only things large enough to make sense of topics as immaterial as racism and prejudice. In a recent interview, he broke down the similarities between Donald Trump’s rise and Hitler’s, pointing out one important difference: “If you go back and hear about Hitler… he didn’t just come to power… he lost election after election. And the economy got bad… When you have that White mentality, there’s a lot of things you just can’t figure out. So then you blame it on (somebody)… So they blamed it on the Jews… We going through the same thing now, here. But there’s one difference. The only reason we can’t produce a Hitler, we can’t produce an honest demagogue.”
Gregory’s almost 85 years on earth gave him a keen ability to see through the illusions created by media and government. His chess-not-checkers approach forced true analysis and self-reflection on anyone within earshot. When he says there are two Donald Trumps, does he mean 45 has literally been cloned? Those who get caught up in the material meaning of his words are not thinking big enough to grasp his meta knowledge.
From his days building with Malcolm X, breaking bread with James Brown and co-hosting radio programming with Interactive One [Cassius’ parent company] founder and owner Cathy Hughes, Gregory’s fingerprints are all over the Civil Rights Era, as well as the modern America that is currently resisting Donald Trump. His refusal to accept injustice lives boldly in the DNA of young people today.
As Confederate monuments fall across America, and millions speak against the hatred of thousands, it’s hard to argue that Gregory’s life of activism and sacrifice was lived in vain.
Gregory’s fingerprints are all over the modern America that is currently resisting Donald Trump. That’s why his refusal to accept injustice is already in the DNA of young people today.And looking back at his storied life and career, it’s even harder to argue that he doesn’t deserve a statue somewhere in his home state of Missouri, replacing a monument to some slave owner or murderer.
Dick Gregory was a truly great American. And as we fight to remove the orange buffoon that is currently controlling these United States, we should be honoring the man who ran for both Mayor of Chicago and President in a time and place when Black men were still being legally lynched. Especially since the year he ran for president as an independent was the first year in U.S. history that every U.S. citizen was protected under the same law regardless of “race, color, religion, or national origin.”