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Dick Gregory, Legendary Comedian and Activist, Dies at 84

Dick Gregory
Harry Dempster, Getty Images

Dick Gregory, the legendary comedian and outspoken civil rights activist, has died today (Aug. 19) at age 84. He’d been hospitalized for an unspecified illness since August 12.

Christian Gregory confirmed the famed comedian’s hospitalization two days ago. In a lengthy Instagram post, Christian indicated that his father’s condition had improved, calling Dick Gregory’s prognosis “excellent” and presuming that he would be “released within the next few days.” But sadly, things took an unexpected turn.

“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,” read the Instagram caption today. “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.”

Gregory was the first major African-American comic to consistently perform in front of mainstream white audiences throughout the 1960s and ’70s on top talk shows. He was born Oct. 12, 1932, in St. Louis and grew up there, raised by his single mother. He attended Southern Illinois University on a track scholarship before being drafted into the army in 1954. While in the army, he began doing comedy shows, eventually moving to Chicago to pursue a career in comedy after he was discharged.

Gregory’s comedy displayed his sharp and probing perspective on racism and other social issues. His career got a major boost in 1961 when he was booked at the Playboy Club in Chicago to replace Professor Irwin Corey.

He played the Playboy Club for the next three years, eventually landing a Time magazine feature and an appearance on The Tonight Show. Gregory agreed to play the late night talk show staple only if he was interviewed by host Jack Paar after his routine–a first for a black performer.

Gregory would become a committed civil rights activist, associating with Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers; Gregory marched in Selma, Ala., was arrested for protesting the Vietnam War and was shot during the 1965 Watts riots. He wrote his autobiography, the provocatively-titled Nigger, in 1964. He lost a Chicago mayoral bid to Richard Daley in 1967, and announced a failed presidential run in 1968 as a write-in candidate for the Peace and Freedom Party. In 1980, he traveled to Tehran to attempt to negotiate the hostages’ release.

His in 1973 book, Dick Gregory’s Natural Diet for Folks Who Eat: Cookin’ With Mother Nature, put him at the forefront of the healthy food boom. He founded Health Enterprises, specializing in weight loss products, including his famous Slim/Safe Bahamian Diet Mix.

For the entirety of his life and career, Dick Gregory remained as vocal on civil rights, as sharp on racial commentary, and as reliably hilarious as ever.

The outpouring of grief, condolences and respect was immediate on social media.

“BREAKING NEWS: Legendary comedian and activist @IAmDickGregory has died,” tweeted Roland Martin. “He was 84. He was a true legend and barrier breaker.”

“He taught us how to laugh,” tweeted Jesse Jackson. “He taught us how to fight.He taught us how to live.Dick Gregory was committed to justice.I miss him already.”

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