Comedian and writer Dick Gregory, who became a leading activist during the Civil Rights Movement, died in Washington D.C. on Saturday evening, his son Christian Gregory announced. Gregory was 84 years old.
Gregory’s satirical take on racial tensions and black identity was groundbreaking as he rose to fame in comedy clubs during the 1960s. In the spotlight as one of the first black comedians to appeal to a white audience, Gregory devoted himself to the civil rights movement. He marched for black voting rights, he marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and, after 1963, he gave up doing comedy full-time for activism, according to BlackPast.org.
“The respect for Dick is not as huge as it ought to be,” Bill Cosby once said of Gregory’s influence. “You just couldn’t argue with his incredible sense of the future, and his drive.”
Though Gregory briefly attended Southern Illinois University on an athletic scholarship, he never received a degree. Instead, he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1953, where got his start as a comedic performer
Gregory would perform comedy routines during military shows and go on to win several Army talent shows. He continued to pursue comedy in Chicago after ending his military service, working by day at the U.S. Post Office and by night as a stand-up comedian for mostly black audiences at small nightclubs.
In 1960, Hugh Hefner invited Gregory to perform for a white audience at his Playboy Lounge in Chicago. His performance that night earned him a six-week gig at the club, which was reviewed by national media, including Time magazine, and solidified his career as one of the most popular comedians of the time.
“A life well-lived but heavily sacrificed, has definitively taken its toll,” Christian Gregory wrote of his father after he was hospitalized Thursday.
“Laughter is truly good medicine,” he added. “I’ve watched my father for a lifetime heal the world.”