On this day in comedy on October 12, 1932 Comedian, Author, Activist, Richard Claxton “Dick” Gregory was born in St. Louis, Missouri.
A poor student in school, Gregory majored in running. He was a record setting track star in the mile and half-mile events. He was so good he earned a track scholarship to Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Then his career using his feet got interrupted by the government. Uncle Sam drafted Dick Gregory into the Army in 1954. It was there that he got into comedy; winning several talent shows and getting a taste of what a career in joke telling felt like.
Once discharged, Gregory headed back to school to finish his education, but found he lacked the same drive as before. He now noticed his instructors wanted him there to run track and couldn’t care less if he ever learned a thing. So he dropped out and got into comedy full time. At least with jokes he knew where he stood. Or so he thought.
Gregory played the black circuit in the Chicago area and opened his own comedy club in 1958. It failed and Gregory was forced to work a day job at the Post office. In the meanwhile, he became the host at the Roberts Show Club at night. Fate stepped in when white comedian, Professor Irwin Corey fell ill and Gregory was hired to substitute for him at the Playboy Club. Hugh Hefner loved what he saw and extended Gregory’s run. Word caught on about this brilliant political black comedian and the next thing you knew Gregory was invited to appear on “the Tonight Show” starring Jack Paar.
Dick Gregory refused to go on Paar’s program. His good friend, big band singer, Billy Eckstine had told him not to do it because black comics never got to sit on the couch and talk to the host; even though it was a talk show. Paar finally had to call Gregory personally and assure him he could sit on the couch and they’d have a rousing conversation, which they did. The switchboard at NBC lit up that night. It was the first time many Americans had seen and black man and a white man in a human dialogue. Gregory became an overnight star. His salary went from $250 per week to $5,000 per night.
In the early 1960s Dick Gregory was the hottest comedian in the country – black or white. Then Martin Luther King, Jr. called and all that changed. It started with an invitation to speak at one of the marches. That turned into a devotion to the Civil Rights Movement and Gregory putting his comedy career on the back burner. It was unconscionable to him to have fans go through the hassle of going out to his show only to be told he was in jail for civil disobedience. The void he left was filled in by his protégés, Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor.
Once the Civil Rights Movement wore down Gregory dabbled in health aids. He created Dick Gregory’s Bahamian Diet. He still did speaking engagements and wrote books; his most famous being his autobiography, Nigger. In 1968 he ran as a write-in candidate for president of the United States. He lost, but his activism extended to women’s rights, a rebuking of the Warren Commission’s findings in the Kennedy Assassination, a co-authored book with conspiracy theorist, Mark Lane on the King Assassination and theories about the facts of 9/11 and other events.
Dick Gregory is #82 on Comedy Central’s list of the 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All-Time. He’s recorded over a dozen albums and appeared in a half-dozen films. Gregory has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame and is regarded in comedy circles as the first recognized black stand-up to get big in the mainstream.
By Darryl “D’Militant” Littleton
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