MITCHELL: Dick Gregory helped pioneer black social activism

SHARE MITCHELL: Dick Gregory helped pioneer black social activism

Dick Gregory outside Mayor Richard J. Daley’s office on Jan. 2, 1968. | Sun-Times negative collection

Dick Gregory could make us laugh about racial insults that really weren’t funny.

That was his gift.

But that wasn’t what endeared him to most African-Americans.

Gregory made us think:

Think about where we came from.

Think about where we were going.

And most of all, think about how we were going to get there.


I was at my 50th year high school reunion dinner Saturday night — I’ll have more about that later — when our host announced that the famous comedian and social activist had died at 84.

Audible gasps filled the room.

We graduated from Dunbar Vocational High School, in 1967, the year Gregory ran against former Mayor Richard J. Daley as a write-in candidate.

Everybody loves a funny man, but Gregory raised a lot of eyebrows during his campaign, and some people treated his candidacy like a publicity stunt.

He didn’t come close to winning. A year later, he ran for president when Alabama Gov. George Wallace declared his candidacy and got 50,000 write-in votes.

“In both these instances, his announcement as a write-in candidate helped foster the idea of a possibility and potentiality of electing a black mayor in Chicago. He was out front on that movement,” noted Conrad Worrill, director emeritus of the Jacob H. Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies.

When Gregory became a star, he didn’t forget where he came from.

“Many of us in the Chicago-land black movement remember Dick Gregory’s rise to star status as a comedian performing at the Tivoli Theater on Cottage Grove, where throngs of black people stood in line to witness his insightful and comedic performances,” Worrill said.

“And many of us remember Dick Gregory’s involvement in the civil rights movement as he used his fame to help advance the issues of the civil rights era by marching alongside Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy, Stokely Carmichael, Coretta Scott King, Fannie Lou Hamer and many others,” Worrill said, reciting the roll call of civil rights icons.

Comedian Dick Gregory leads marchers who were protesting the administration of Chicago Public Schools Supt. Benjamin Willis. The demonstrators were among about 100 people who staged a civil rights march in front of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley’s home on

Comedian Dick Gregory leads marchers who were protesting the administration of Chicago Public Schools Supt. Benjamin Willis. The demonstrators were among about 100 people who staged a civil rights march in front of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley’s home on the night of Tuesday, Aug. 4, 1965. | AP/Sun-Times print collection

But he wasn’t only concerned about racism in America. During the Vietnam War, Gregory went on a hunger strike and refused solid food for two and a half years, he said in a 2000 interview with NPR.

And decades before the birth of the Black Lives Matter Movement, Gregory was using hunger strikes to protest police brutality.

Yes, Gregory was definitely a man before his time.

In the freewheeling days of the ’60s when a lot of civil rights activists dealt with stress by smoking, drinking too much and, well, engaging in a lot of other unhealthy behavior, Gregory embraced a lifestyle of clean living.

He was an early protege of the late Dr. Alvenia Fulton, the renowned nutritionist who founded the Fultonia Health Food and Fasting Center on West 63rd Street.

“Ms. Fulton was an iconic health care advocate who had worked closely with many movement people to address the question of diet and healthy living,” Worrill recalled.

“Gregory put down the cigarettes and the alcohol, and in its place chose a more healthy lifestyle which he advocated throughout the African-American community,” he said.

When Gregory was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2003, he used natural herbs, exercise and vitamins to successfully beat back the cancer.

Gregory was married to his wife, Lillian, for 58 years and the couple had 11 children.

ln a 2004 interview with the “Independent,” Gregory was candid about his priorities in life.

“Lil and I made an agreement. We promised ourselves that black folks would always come first. Even before our children. I’ve been married for 45 years, but that has nothing to do with love. She just said: “N*****, if you ever leave, I’ll kill you,” he said.

I can’t bear to spell out the slur. But Gregory uttered it unapologetically. It was even the title of his autobiography.

“Let’s pull it out the closet, let’s lay it out there, let’s deal with it, let’s dissect it. It should never be called ‘the N-word,’ ” he told NPR.

Funeral plans are pending, but may not take place for a couple of weeks, according to a close family friend.

“He used his considerable skill as a performing artist and comedian to uplift the political, economic, social and cultural issues that impacted people of African descent, not only in this country but worldwide,” Worrill said. “At the time he was making millions of dollars, he sacrificed his career for the black movement.”

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