Wednesday, February 5, 2014

0 Dick Gregory: A Living Legend

By: Marvin DeBose

Before Dave Chappelle, before Chris Rock, and even before Richard Pryor, there was Dick Gregory.

Comedic legends like Rock, Chappelle and Pryor are well-known for their ability to make audiences laugh while creating a dialogue on sensitive social issues from an honest, African-American perspective. Their ability to combine wit, a humorous sense of irreverence along with storytelling to discuss these issues in front of a mainstream audience is often seen as something fairly new.

Yet Dick Gregory was touching on these issues long before Pryor became a star and before Rock and Chappelle were even born.

Dick Gregory
He was born Richard Claxton Gregory, on October 12, 1932, in St. Louis, Missouri. Born to a family of six children, raised by a single mother, Gregory grew up in poverty for much of his early life and also faced a great deal of discrimination, growing up in Jim Crow-era America.

Yet, his experiences of poverty and racism would develop what he would become as an adult.

Despite the hardships he faced early on, Gregory had a remarkable career as a student-athlete.He excelled at track, to the point where he earned a scholarship to Southern Illinois University, where he set school records in track and received the school's Outstanding Athlete Award in 1953.

However, Gregory's career as a track star was put on hold when he joined the army in 1954. But it was here where he officially got his start in comedy, performing in, and winning, many Army talent shows.

He returned to college after two years of being in the army, yet dropped out due what he felt as the university's lack of interest in his academic success, and more of an interest in his track career.

So, in the late-1950s, Gregory moved to Chicago to pursue a career in comedy, yet it was no easy feat. So Gregory worked for the U.S Postal Service while performing in various Chicago clubs.

Eventually, Gregory got his big break in comedy when, in 1961, he was hired by Hugh Hefner to perform at his Chicago Playboy Club.

From here, Gregory's career took off. His witty and social conscious sense of humor pertaining to major issues of that time, especially race and class, along with his signature calm, yet charismatic, deadpan delivery made him a hit with American mainstream audiences.

He'd go on perform on major shows of the time, such as The Tonight Show with Jack Paar, a job which, interestingly enough, Gregory initially declined numerous times in his career.

Despite the ability of The Tonight Show to catapult the careers of young comics, Gregory's reasoning behind not performing on the show was based on the fact that Black comics were never allowed to stay as guest on Paar's show after their performances.

It wasn't until Paar personally called Gregory and agreed to change the standards of the show that Gregory decided to perform on the show. Although this performance would boost Gregory career and introduce him to a national audience, he began to put a great deal of focus and energy into another passion which he had which was social activism.

At the same time as Gregory's rise in comedy in the early 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement was on the rise in America as well. Gregory, a man who grew up facing racial discrimination and often candidly discussed it in his act, was naturally drawn to the movement.

He spoke at and participated in numerous rallies and protests throughout the South and developed a close relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He toured to raised money for activist groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was arrested for his protests numerous times.

Gregory (left of center) marching alongside Dr. King in Mississippi  in 1966.

Gregory would even run for political office. In 1967, he ran for mayor of Chicago against Richard Daley, and, in 1968, he even ran for U.S. President. Although, he lost both races, his activism and civic engagement continued throughout his life.

Gregory at a press conference along with Muhammad Ali
Not only was Gregory an activist and outspoken critic against racism and poverty in America, in the late-60s, he became a vegetarian as well as an advocate for fitness and nutrition. Later in his late he would strongly advocate eating raw fruits and vegetables and he'd become known for participating in fasts as a part of his activism.

Gregory would also go on to write countless books and become an entrepreneur, selling numerous health products, and also serving as a nutritional consultant.

Today, at the age of 81, Gregory continues his activism, his health advocacy and his comedy, all with his signature wit and social-awareness which has stood the test of time.

His commitment and willingness to sacrifice his career for the issues which affect everyday people has set an example for countless entertainers.

Not only is he a pioneer for entertainers, for comedians, or for African-Americans. Dick Gregory is a pioneer for what it means to be a human being who is willing to risk his livelihood, as well his life, for his principles and his commitment to a better life for all people.

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