A renown comedian, Dick Gregory (born 1932) used his wit and humor to advance his deep interest in civil rights and world peace.
Dick Gregory was born Richard Claxton Gregory on October 12, 1932, into poverty and deprivation in St. Louis, Missouri. In some ways his humble beginnings fueled the topical racial comedy which catapulted him into fame in the 1960s. He attended Southern Illinois University in Carbondale from 1951 to 1956. In 1953 he received the school's Outstanding Athlete Award.
By 1958 Gregory was making his debut in show business by appearing at the Esquire and Roberts show clubs in Chicago and at the Club Apex in nearby Robbins, Illinois. His regular appearances on television included the Jack Paar and Mike Douglas shows which made him one of the best known Blacks in America. The radicalization which transformed many Americans during the 1960s led Gregory to see things in a global perspective. Many of his public appearances started to combine comedy with political commentary. He became an outspoken opponent of American involvement in Vietnam and of racial as well as ethnic discrimination in America and elsewhere.
In the United States Gregory was one of the first modern spokespersons to suggest that the Census Bureau undercounts minorities, particularly in large cities. In 1966, through a series of fund-raisers, he shipped 10,000 pounds of navy beans to Marks, Mississippi, to feed hungry people. In addition, he advocated large families as a way to both counter and protest racism.
Internationally, Gregory was a major leader of the antiwar movement. He traveled to France to protest French involvement in Indo-China and to Northern Ireland to advise Irish Republican Army (IRA) political protesters on techniques for fasting. In his campaign against hunger he traveled to Ethiopia more than ten times. In 1968 the Peace and Freedom Party nominated him as its presidential candidate in recognition of his efforts to make the world a better place.
In 1981 Gregory—who formerly weighed 350 pounds, smoked four packs of cigarettes and drank a fifth of Scotch a day—put his dietary knowledge to the test. In the planning stages for more than six years, he conducted "the longest medically supervised scientific fast in the history of the planet." During this "Dick Gregory's Zero Nutrition Fasting Experiment" he lived on a gallon of water and prayer for 70 days at Dillard University's Flint-Goodridge Hospital. Upon its completion, he demonstrated his good health by walking and jogging the 100 miles between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. From this experiment he created his "4-X Fasting Formula," which included a "Life-Centric Monitor" and an emphasis on colonetics. The fast also indicated that the body can prolong the time it can go without food.
Gregory announced a vow of celibacy in 1981. As the father of ten children and a former performer of a risqué night club act, this news was somewhat surprising. It was a part of a philosophy of life which sought to switch from the animal to the divine nature of man.
In his concern for health and nutrition, he came to believe that agricultural resources exist to assure each man, woman, and child a chemically safe, nutritionally sound, and physiologically efficient diet. Multi-level distribution rights to his nutrition formula—Dick Gregory's Slim-safe Bahamian Diet—were sold for a reported $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 lamented the lack of health food stores in Black communities and sought to promote an awareness of the importance of natural foods and the dangers of the traditional soul food diet. He believes because their diets and lifestyles tend to include higher than average amounts of salt, sugar, cholesterol, alcohol and drugs that Blacks have a shorter life expectancy.
A large percentage of the profits from the sales of products developed by the Dick Gregory Health Enterprise in Chicago was earmarked for the poor and for Black civil rights groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the United Negro College Fund, and the Rosa Parks Foundation. In addition, Gregory acquired a major interest in the Frankie Jennings Cosmetics Company to fulfill his dream of marketing products such as vitamins, shampoo, juices, and cookies. Howard and Xavier universities were researching and testing sites for his products. Another campaign was to inform the public about the ills of alcohol, caffeine, and drug consumption.
Dick Gregory was a deeply spiritual man but was not limited to any traditional religion or formulized dogma. Instead, he advocated the attainment of oneness with a "Godself," which he believed was the most complete state of being. He advocated a holistic approach to life through diet, fitness, and spiritual awareness.
Even at 64 Gregory was still doing his one-man stand up comedy show, Dick Gregory, LIVE! As late as 1996 he was opening in Chicago. In March of 1997 he was the fifth annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Guestship speaker at Elmhurst College. He credited much of his success to the support and trust of his wife Lillian (Lil), whom he married in 1959.
Further Reading on Dick Gregory
There is no published biography of Dick Gregory. He has, however, written extensively of himself and his beliefs in Nigger: An Autobiography (1964). Two magazine articles of interest are "My Answer to Genocide," Ebony (October 1981) and a discussion of his 4-X Formula in Black Enterprise (May 1985). Gregory has published the following books: From the Back of the Bus (1962); What's Happening (1965); The Shadow That Scares Me (1968); Write Me In (1968); No More Lies (1971); Dick Gregory's Political Primer (1972); Dick Gregory's Natural Diet … Nature (1973); Up From Nigger (1976); and Dick Gregory's Bible Tales (1978).
Additional Biography Sources
Newsmakers 1990, issue 3.
Chicago Tribune, "Comedian-activist set to speak at college," 2/16/97; "Long Comedy Club Absence Hasn't Dulled Dick Gregory," 08/24/96.
Village Voice, 1/16/96, Vol. 41 Issue 3, p64.
Amsterdam News, 11/23/96, Vol. 87 Issue 47, p30.