Comedian Dick Gregory, who died Saturday at 84, was one of the most successful black comedians working at the intersection of comedy and the civil rights struggle.
When Gregory fasted for 70 days in 1981, living off a gallon of water per day, his goal was to raise awareness about civil rights. He put his body on the line in the name of the culture while bringing awareness to food scarcity, health disparities and hunger.
“Years of severe fasting, not for health but for social change, had damaged his vasculature system long ago. He always reminded us, many of his fasts were not about his personal health but an attempt to heal the world,” his son, Christian Gregory, told The Associated Press. Gregory is survived by his wife, Lillian, and 10 children.
Here are five things to remember about the late activist and thought-provoker.
5. he was an athlete
Gregory ran track during high school in his hometown of St. Louis. He earned a track scholarship to Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, where he set school records as a half-miler and miler.
“In high school I was fighting being broke and on relief,” he wrote in his 1963 autobiography. “But in college, I was fighting being Negro.”
His college days were cut short when he was drafted into the Army.
“We thought I was going to be a great athlete, and we were wrong, and I thought I was going to be a great entertainer, and that wasn’t it either. I’m going to be an American citizen. First class,” he once said, according to The Associated Press.
4. He ran for office twice
Gregory ran for mayor of Chicago in 1966 and president in 1968. He received 50,000 write-in votes for president.
3. He made nutrition into an empire
Gregory might just be the greatest of all time in the clean-eating craze. He was ahead of his time, promoting fasting and dieting before it was popular.
Gregory once weighed 350 pounds while smoking four packs of cigarettes and drinking a fifth of Scotch daily. He changed his life and began fasting. He conducted Dick Gregory’s Zero Nutrition Fasting Experiment in 1981 under doctors’ supervision and living off a gallon of water and prayer for 70 days at Dillard University’s Flint-Goodridge Hospital.
The fast prompted his 4-X Fasting Formula. According to yourdictionary.com, his Slim-safe Bahamian Diet products were “sold for $100 million when the special formulation became commercially available in August of 1984. Articles in People and USA Today made the diet a favorite among the general public.”
“Gregory went without solid food for weeks to draw attention to a wide range of causes, including Middle East peace, U.S. hostages in Iran, animal rights, police brutality, the Equal Rights Amendment for women and to support pop singer Michael Jackson when he was charged with sexual molestation in 2004.”
Gregory was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2000 and opted for herbs, exercise and vitamins instead of chemotherapy. The cancer went into remission a few years later.
2. he was the first black performer to sit on the couch of The Tonight Show
“Black folks made me. I’m in a little club making $5 a night three nights a week,” Gregory said during an interview with Reelblack published in November 2015. A gig at the Playboy Club in Chicago helped him move into a career that put him in front of white audiences.
“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?”
He once got a call from producers of Tonight Starring Jack Paar. At the time, black performers weren’t invited to sit on the couch. He told Parr he would not accept the invitation unless he could sit on the couch after his stand-up. He became the first black performer to speak with Parr on the couch after his performance.
1. he was a feminist
Gregory marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to the U.S. Capitol with a crowd of more than 100,000 people to push for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.