Dick Gregory is a comedian and activist who became well known for his biting brand of comedy that attacked racial prejudice. Activist/comedian Dick Gregory was arrested for civil disobedience several times, and his activism spurred him to run for mayor of Chicago in 1966 and for president in 1968. In the early 1970s Gregory abandoned comedy to focus on his political interests, which widened from race relations to include such issues as violence, world hunger, capital punishment, drug abuse and poor health care.
Gregory was a poor student who excelled at running, and was aided by teachers at Sumner High School, among them Warren St. James. Gregory earned a track scholarship to Southern Illinois University Carbondale. There he set school records as a half-miler and miler. His college career was interrupted for two years in 1954 when he was drafted into the U.S. Army. The Army was where he got his start in comedy, entering and winning several Army talent shows at the urging of his commanding officer, who had taken notice of Gregory’s penchant for joking. In 1956, Gregory briefly returned to SIU after his discharge, but dropped out because he felt that the university “didn’t want me to study, they wanted me to run”.
In the hopes of performing comedy professionally, Gregory moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he became part of a new generation of black comedians that included Nipsey Russell, Bill Cosby, and Godfrey Cambridge, all of whom broke with the minstrel tradition, which presented stereotypical black characters. Gregory drew on current events, especially racial issues, for much of his material: “Segregation is not all bad. Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?”
Early in Dick Gregory’s career, he was offered a gig on The Tonight Show Starring Jack Paar. Paar’s show was known for helping propel entertainers to the next level of their careers. At the time, black comics did perform on the show but were never asked to stay after their performances to sit on the famous couch and talk with the host. Dick Gregory declined the invitation to perform on the show several times until finally Jack Paar called him to find out why he refused to perform on the show. Eventually, in order to have Gregory perform, the producers agreed to allow him to stay after his performance and talk with the host on air. This was a first in the show’s history. Dick Gregory’s interview on The Tonight Show spurred conversations across America. His interview provided an opportunity for viewers to see an African American in a positive and humane light.
Active in the Civil Rights Movement, on October 7, 1963, Gregory came to Selma, Alabama and spoke for two hours on a public platform two days before the voter registration drive known as “Freedom Day” (October 7, 1963). In 1964, Gregory became more involved in civil rights activities, activism against the Vietnam War, economic reform, anti-drug issues, conspiracy theories, and others. As a part of his activism, he went on several hunger strikes and campaigns in America and overseas. Gregory began his political career by running against Richard J. Daley for the mayoralty of Chicago in 1967. Though he did not emerge victorious, this would not prove to be the end of his dalliances in electoral politics.
Gregory is an outspoken feminist, and in 1978 joined Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, Margaret Heckler, Barbara Mikulski, and other suffragists to lead the National ERA March for Ratification and Extension, a march down Pennsylvania Avenue to the United States Capitol of over 100,000 on Women’s Equality Day (August 26), 1978 to demonstrate for a ratification deadline extension for the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution, and for the ratification of the ERA. The march was ultimately successful in extending the deadline to June 30, 1982, and Gregory joined other activists to the Senate for celebration and victory speeches by pro-ERA Senators, Members of Congress, and activists. The ERA still narrowly failed to be ratified by the extended ratification date, however, but the Women’s Movement was largely successful in securing gender equality in the laws and society.
In 1984 he founded Health Enterprises, Inc., a company that distributed weight loss products. With this company, Gregory made efforts to improve the life expectancy of African Americans, which he believes is being hindered by poor nutrition and drug and alcohol abuse.