Dick Gregory, the comedian and activist for social change in America, has died at 84, his family announced Saturday night. The cause of his death was heart failure, his rep confirmed.
In a post on Instagram, his son wrote:
“It is with enormous sadness that the Gregory family confirms that their father, comedic legend and civil rights activist Mr. Dick Gregory departed this earth tonight in Washington, D.C. The family appreciates the outpouring of support and love and respectfully asks for their privacy as they grieve during this very difficult time. More details will be released over the next few days – Christian Gregory.”
Gregory announced in 2000 that he’d been diagnosed with lymphoma, but he refused traditional treatment. He had been known throughout his life for an austere medical and nutritional approach to life.
Feeling under the weather, Gregory had been taken to the hospital on Aug. 9, his son Christian tweeted Thursday evening, but was released that same day with instructions to rest. He returned to the hospital on Aug. 12, and he was admitted.
“When it comes to sickness and disease one’s age is highly significant,” Christian wrote. “There is no such thing as a ‘simple’ condition. In advanced age a simple cold or a simple infection could be catastrophic. At soon to be chronologically 85, my father’s true age far exceeds that. A life well-lived but heavily sacrificed, has definitively taken its toll.”
The comedian was scheduled to perform, along with Paul Mooney, in Atlanta Wednesday, Aug. 16, but the show was postponed.
Gregory was one of a landmark generation of African-American standup comedians who took on the issues of race and social change in his humor. Born in St. Louis, Gregory pursued his craft in black comedy clubs in Chicago, but got his big break when he landed an appearance on the “Jack Paar Show,” the early model for late night television.
In the 1960s, he joined comedians like Nipsey Russell, Bill Cosby and Godfrey Cambridge, who shunned racial stereotypes and comedic minstrel shows, as the country moved into the Civil Rights era.
The Root recalled one of his signature jokes: “Segregation is not all bad. Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?”
Long before voter suppression was a talking point between political parties, Gregory was an active speaker for the voter-registration drive known as Freedom Day on Oct. 7, 1963, taking the stage for two hours in Selma, Alabama. In 1967, he took his activism to the next stage by running against Richard J. Daley for the mayor of Chicago. Although he didn’t win, the following year he ran for President of the United States as a write-in candidate for the Freedom and Peace Party and authored the book Write Me In about his campaign. Among his campaign gimmicks were dollar bills with his image.
Gregory was an outspoken critic of the Warren Commission’s findings that Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated John F. Kennedy, was a strong support of women’s rights, even taking to foot in the National ERA March for Ratification and Extension on Women’s Equality Day in 1978, and voiced his concern that intentional water contamination was being used against African-Americans.
The same year he was diagnosed with lymphoma, a gala was held at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in his honor. Celebrities in attendance at “An Evening of Reflections with Dick Gregory” included Bill Cosby, Cicely Tyson, Paul Mooney, Stevie Wonder and Isaac Hayes.