Dick Gregory, comedian and civil rights activist, dies at 84

Dick Gregory, 84, who became the first black stand-up comic to break the color barrier in major nightclubs in the early 1960s, a decade in which he satirized segregation and race relations in his act and launched his lifetime commitment to civil rights and other social justice issues, died Saturday.

His death was confirmed on his official social-media accounts by his family.

"It is with enormous sadness that the Gregory family confirms that their father, comedic legend and civil rights activist Mr. Dick Gregory, departed this earth tonight in Washington, DC," his son Christian Gregory wrote.

As one of the first black standup comedians to find success with white audiences, in the early 1960s, Gregory rose from an impoverished childhood in St. Louis to win a college track scholarship and become a celebrated satirist who deftly commented upon racial divisions at the dawn of the civil rights movement.

“Where else in the world but America,” he joked, “could I have lived in the worst neighborhoods, attended the worst schools, rode in the back of the bus, and get paid $5,000 a week just for talking about it?”

Even before the confirmation from the family, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a longtime friend of Mr. Gregory's, had memorialized him in a tweet:

Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.) and comedian/actress Whoopi Goldberg also tweeted tributes:

In a life that began in poverty in St. Louis during the Depression, the former Southern Illinois University track star became known as an author, lecturer, nutrition guru, and self-described agitator who marched, ran, and fasted to call attention to issues ranging from police brutality to world famine.

An invitation from civil rights leader Medgar Evers to speak at voter registration rallies in Jackson, Miss., in 1962 launched Mr. Gregory into what he called "the civil rights fight."

He was frequently arrested for his activities in the '60s, and once spent five days in jail in Birmingham, Ala., after joining demonstrators in 1963 at the request of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Mr. Gregory, who was shot in the leg while trying to help defuse the Watts riots in 1965, made a failed run for mayor of Chicago as a write-in candidate in 1967. A year later, he ran for president as a write-in candidate for the Freedom and Peace Party, a splinter group of the Peace and Freedom Party. Hunter S. Thompson was one of his most vocal supporters.

In the late '60s, he began going on 40-day fasts to protest the Vietnam War.

In 1980, impatient with President Jimmy Carter's handling of the Iranian hostage crisis, he flew to Iran and began a fast, had a "ceremonial visit" with revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and met with the revolutionary students inside the embassy. After 41/2 months in Iran, his weight down to 106 pounds, he returned home.

But before Dick Gregory the activist, there was Dick Gregory the groundbreaking comedian.

He was a struggling 28-year-old stand-up comic in Chicago who had launched his career in small black clubs when he received a life-changing phone call from his agent in January 1961: The prestigious Playboy Club in Chicago needed someone to fill in for comedian Irwin Corey.

Mr. Gregory was so broke he had to borrow a quarter from his landlord for bus fare downtown. Never mind that his audience turned out to be a convention of white frozen-food-industry executives from the South.

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," Mr. Gregory said, coolly eyeing the audience. "I understand there are a good many Southerners in the room tonight. I know the South very well. I spent 20 years there one night. . . .

"Last time I was down South, I walked into this restaurant, and this white waitress came up to me and said: 'We don't serve colored people here.' I said: 'That's all right, I don't eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.' "

Despite having to deal with what he later described as "dirty, little insulting statements" from some members of the audience, the heckling soon stopped as Mr. Gregory won them over with his provocatively funny but nonbelligerent satirical humor.

"Segregation is not all bad," he said on stage. "Have you ever heard of a wreck where the people on the back of the bus got hurt?"

Mr. Gregory had received an athletic scholarship to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where he became captain of the cross-country and track teams and the school's fastest half-miler.

His education was interrupted in 1954 when he was drafted into the Army, where his wisecracks and nonmilitary demeanor earned him an ultimatum from a colonel: Either enter and win an open talent show at the service club or face a court-martial.

He won the contest, with jokes such as explaining how the Army charged him $85 when he lost his rifle: "That's why in the Navy, the captain always goes down with his ship." After winning two more contests, he was placed in Special Services.

After his discharge in 1956, Mr. Gregory returned to Southern Illinois University. But he soon dropped out and moved to Chicago. He worked for a time at the post office - "I kept flipping the letters to Mississippi in the foreign slot," he'd joke - and then at Ford Aircraft before landing a job as a comic-emcee in the lounge of a bar on Chicago's South Side.

In the audience one night was Lillian Smith, a young secretary at the University of Chicago, who became his wife and the mother of their 10 children (an 11th died in infancy). Mr. Gregory frequently said his wife was the spiritual core of his family, and his children his most devoted admirers.

In 2016, musician John Legend produced a one-man play on Mr. Gregory's life, Turn Me Loose. Legend said he marveled at how fresh and relevant the comedian's brand of humor remained. "It sounds like he's aware of what's happening now even though they were written so long ago," Legend told the Boston Globe.

The lines were pure Dick Gregory, funny, clever, and dipped in sarcasm: "I never learned hate at home, or shame. I had to go to school for that."

In addition to his wife, Mr. Gregory is survived by his children.

This article includes information from the Associated Press.