Dick Gregory’s activist legacy spans from Philly, across U.S.

August 22, 2017

When news of legendary comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory’s death was posted Saturday night, social media sites were flooded with reaction as many paid respect to the 84-year-old’s life work.

Gregory’s wry observations and acerbic wit allowed him to achieve early success with white audiences in the early 1960s, while never losing focus on the racial divisions that defined the Civil Rights Movement.

“Where else in the world but America,” he joked, “could I have lived in the worst neighborhoods, attended the worst schools, rode in the back of the bus and get paid $5,000 a week just for talking about it?”

However, Gregory didn’t just talk. He often showed up in troubled communities to advise, encourage and, through the guise of humor, educate.

Before crossing over to mainstream audiences, Gregory played the Chitlin Circuit, including stops in Philadelphia.

He visited the region innumerable times to perform comedy or diffuse civic unrest. For instance, during the 1964 riots, community leaders beckoned Gregory, who then joined Cecil B. Moore to help restore calm in North Philadelphia.

Throughout his career, Gregory would continue to visit the Delaware Valley where dozens to hundreds of his fans would eagerly purchase tickets to hear his perspective. At the time of his death, he was booked for local and national appearances through 2018.

Gregory’s ability to woo audiences through humor helped him bring national attention to fledgling efforts at integration and social equality for Blacks.

“During the fight for civil rights — and it was a fight — he chose to join the fray, which is what made him unbelievably effective because he continued with that cool conversational style,” said journalist and cultural critic Richard Torres.

“You felt that when Dick Gregory was talking politics you were listening to the most rational man alive,” Torres added. “He was a man of great values who was willing to put each and every one of them on the line for the roper cause. We are talking about a man who had countless hunger strikes to protest conditions around this world.”

Gregory briefly sought political office, running unsuccessfully for mayor of Chicago in 1966 and U.S. president in 1968, when he got 200,000 votes as the Peace and Freedom Party candidate.

An admirer of Mahatma Gandhi of India and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Gregory embraced nonviolence and became a vegetarian and marathon runner. Once an overweight smoker and drinker, he would go on to transform into a trim, energetic proponent of liquid meals and raw food diets.

When diagnosed with lymphoma in 2000, the entertainer and activist fought it with herbs, exercise and vitamins. The disease went in remission a few years later.

“Dick Gregory was from that greatest generation, the generation that put themselves on the line not only professionally, but personally and physically for civil rights,” noted Torres. “Think about that: what is more dangerous to a racist society that a smart man of color that speaks calmly, softly, but whose words carry great weight?”

In 2014, the celebrated satirist committed to writing his 15th book, “The Most Defining Moments in Black History: Reading Between the Lies,” which explores the complicated history of Black America — from African ancestry and surviving the Middle Passage to the creation of the Jheri Curl to the headline-making shootings of Black men and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Initially scheduled for release in four weeks, the publisher, Amistad HarperCollins, has moved the release date to Sept 5.

“This book was really important to him,” said Tracy Sherrod, who worked with Gregory closely as the editorial director of Amistad HarperCollins. “He knew it was going to be his last book and wanted it to be a certain way.”

The early reviews have applauded Gregory’s insightful commentary on the intricate history of the African-American people.

“I know a lot about history, but every time I read this I get lost,” added Sherrod.

The comic genius’ life story will also be told on stage as Joe Morton will portray the entertainer in a upcoming play named for final words uttered by Gregory’s mentor, slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers: “Turn Me Loose.”

“He was still brilliantly observational, sharp and funny … and was politically woke until the end, still commenting on everything from Trump to Black Lives Matter, and more,” said Torres.

Visit your favorite bookseller to order “Defining Moments in Black History: Reading Between the Lies” by Dick Gregory in hardback, eBook and Digital Audio Download formats.

“Turn Me Loose,” starring Morton, opens Oct. 13 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles.

Gregory’s first album,”In Living Black and White,” is available as a compact disc or digital download.

The Associated Press contributed to this report