Dick Gregory, the comedian and civil rights crusader, died Saturday. He was 84.
His family announced the news on his public Facebook page.
“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, DC,” his son Christian Gregory said in the post. “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.”
According to The Associated Press, Gregory, who was recently in and out of the hospital, died following a severe bacterial infection. NPR has not independently confirmed the cause of death.
Gregory gained attention as a comedian in the early 1960s, and was the first black comedian to widely win plaudits from white audiences. Darryl Littleton, author of the book Black Comedians on Black Comedy, told NPR in 2009 that Gregory broke barriers with his appearances on television, just by sitting down:
“Dick Gregory is the first to recognized — and he’ll say it — the first black comedian to be able to stand flat-footed, and just delivered comedy. You had other comedians back then but they always had to do a little song or a dance or whatever, Sammy Davis had to dance and sing, and then tell jokes. Same with Pearl Bailey and some of the other comedians. But Dick Gregory was able to grow on television, sit down on the Jack Paar show — and sit on the couch and actually have a discussion, and that it never happened in the history of television.”
Gregory “opened the door” for Bill Cosby to rise to fame, Littleton said.
He was noted for his political and social activism, beginning in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. He attended the historic 1963 March on Washington. Forty years later, Gregory told Tavis Smiley on NPR about his experience at the march, describing it as “joy. It was festivity, and as far as the human eye could see.”
Gregory talked in 2003 about his experience trying to integrate a restaurant in Mississippi before the march, showing he could inject some humor into a serious story:
Gregory was married for more than 50 years and had 10 children. His daughter Ayanna Gregory released a song called “A Ballad For My Father” in 2007. She told NPR that her father was gone from home often, but it was because “human rights became his life.”
She sang: “As a little girl, I didn’t know what you meant to this world. If I had a dime for every time somebody told me it’s to save their lives and changed their minds. You planted seeds so long ago deep in me so I would grow.”
Gregory mused about death in 2006, when talking with Ed Gordon about the passing at the time of Coretta Scott King:
“Let me just say this, whenever you die from this planet, I feel you go some place, and my trip going to be so long to wherever I go, I got instructions from my wife to put on a couple of backpacks.”
RIP to a LEGEND