Telling Jokes and Spreading Truth: The Legacy of Dick Gregory

SHUT IT DOWN FOR MIKE BROWN one year anniversary RALLY against police brutality / Elvert Barnes /Wikimedia/ CC BY-SA


Dick Gregory’s comedic style was unmatched.

Starting out as a stand-up comic, his existence as a Black man in America during the turbulent 1960's propelled him to also dedicate his life to working for the liberation of Black people. 

He passed away Saturday August 19, 2017 at age 84.

Before hitting it big, though, Gregory started as all Black comedians did, in the Chitlin Circuit- small venues in the South, East, and Midwest which were safe for Black performers and audiences during the era of racial segregation.

Gregory jumped into the mainstream when he was booked by Hugh Hefner to perform at Chicago's Playboy Club seven nights a week- replacing a white comedian who wasn’t up to the task. Gregory had seemingly endless material and became the first Black comic to perform in white clubs.

"When I started, a black comic couldn't work a white nightclub. You could sing, you could dance, but you couldn't stand flat-footed and talk — then the system would know how brilliant black folks was," Gregory recalled in a 2016 interview.

He went on to receive a profile in Time magazine and an offer to perform on The Tonight Show. Unimpressed with merely telling jokes on the show, he refused to perform unless he could be interviewed by host Jack Paar after completing his routine- something a Black performer had never done.

After the tonight show appearance, his salary jumped from $35 per night at the Playboy Club to $5,000 per night.

In the 60's and 70's Gregory appeared on all the the major TV talk shows. His humor was shocking, considering the social climate of the time: "Segregation is not all bad. Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?"

Unlike many of our people who reach mainstream success, Gregory maintained a strong connection to his community. He befriended both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. He worked with Medgar Evers on a voter-registration rally. He marched in Selma and was shot in the Watts riots. And that's not even half of it.

Gregory even ran for president in 1968, achieving 47,000 write-in votes.

Despite how large he got, Dick Gregory always remembered to give credit to the Black community for being his main source of support throughout his career.

Even in his final years he could be found around the country and on YouTube with a stack of newspaper clippings calling attention to issues affecting the Black community- putting a comedic twist on it that only he could.

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