Dick Gregory, Groundbreaking Comedian and Civil Rights Activist, Dies at 84

Comedy Features Dick Gregory
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Dick Gregory, Groundbreaking Comedian and Civil Rights Activist, Dies at 84

Pioneering comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, known for his lacerating send-ups of racism in America, died Saturday in Washington, D.C., his family confirmed. He was 84.

Born in St. Louis, Mo., in 1932, Gregory came to prominence in the early 1960s, becoming one of the first black stand-ups to perform at predominantly white clubs. From a stint headlining at Chicago’s famed Playboy Club to comedy albums and frequent television appearances, Gregory was a fearless and ferociously funny observer of the country’s racial divide, famously quipping, “I never believed in Santa Claus because I knew no white dude would come into my neighborhood after dark.”

Along with other leading black artists of the era, including Harry Belafonte and Nina Simone, the political nature of Gregory’s work soon led him into activism, and he became a major figure in both the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement in 1960s, culminating in unsuccessful campaigns for mayor of Chicago and president of the United States. Later in life, he became a passionate advocate for nutrition and exercise, and campaigned against police brutality and for the Equal Rights Amendment. He also authored a number of books, including an autobiography and a memoir.

Gregory’s death was met with tributes from performers, activists and politicians alike, including comedians DL Hughley, Dave Chappelle and Whoopi Goldberg, actress Cicely Tyson, director Ava DuVernay, musician John Legend, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., former NAACP president and CEO Ben Jealous, and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), among others.

“He taught us how to laugh,” Jackson wrote on Twitter. “He taught us how to fight. He taught us how to live. Dick Gregory was committed to justice. I miss him already.”

“From comedy to civil rights to a life dedicated to equality, he never waned,” his son, Christian, wrote on Instagram early Sunday. “Immeasurable generational sacrifice. A transformative blockbuster comedian who obliterated the color line.”