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Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017 12:00 am

Groundbreaking comedian, dedicated activist

RICHARD CLAXTON GREGORY: Oct. 12, 1932 - Aug. 19, 2017

 

“The only good thing about the good old days is they’re gone.“– Dick Gregory

Dick Gregory, who passed away in August at the age of 84, had the rare gift of combining humor with social commentary in a way that created understanding and unity rather than division. As a stand-up comedian starting out in the mid-1960s, Gregory is often credited with being the first African-American comedian to break through to white audiences, paving the way for later success stories like the late Richard Pryor, who once said of Gregory, “He was the greatest, and he was the first. Somebody had to break down that door.”

“Life isn’t a race. It’s a relay.”

Born in St. Louis (where he now has his own star on the city’s Walk of Fame on Delmar Blvd.), Richard Claxton Gregory escaped the poverty of his youth in 1951 when he received a track scholarship to attend Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where he set some running records and became a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. In 1953 he became the first black student to be named SIU’s “outstanding athlete of the year.” That same year he was drafted and served in the army.

“Baseball is very big with my people. It figures. It’s the only way we can get to shake a bat at a white man without starting a riot.”

It was while in the Army that Gregory reportedly first tried his hand at stand-up comedy. After being discharged in 1955, he returned to SIU but dropped out the following year, saying the school “didn’t want me to study, they wanted me to run.” (SIU awarded Gregory an honorary doctorate in 1987).  

He then moved to Chicago and began his professional stand-up comedy career there, working at the post office during the day and doing comedy at night. He received his big break after Hugh Hefner caught his act by chance and invited him to perform at the Playboy Club. Gregory later made his national television debut on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar, where – as a condition of appearing – he was the first comedian to sit down and chat with the host after performing.

“You know the definition of a Southern moderate? That’s a cat that’ll lynch you from a low tree.”

Beginning in the mid-1960s, Gregory became increasingly associated with political activism, an arena where his ability to approach serious subjects with genial humor helped garner support for the pro-civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. A dedicated feminist, in 1982 he traveled to Springfield to participate in a hunger strike at the Statehouse in support of the Equal Rights Amendment. He returned to stand-up comedy in 1995 – after a break of more than two decades – with a popular run of shows on Broadway. He is ranked number 82 on Comedy Central’s list of “100 Greatest Stand-ups.”

“I wouldn’t mind paying taxes if I knew they were going to a friendly country.”

Long interested in health and nutrition, in 1984 Gregory started the company Health Enterprises, Inc., which marketed a dietary powder intended to offset poor health choices in the African-American community. In recent years he periodically appeared in the media – including Alex Jones’ Info Wars – touting conspiracy theories regarding subjects such as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the World Trade Center attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Contact Scott Faingold at sfaingold@illinoistimes.com.

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