When speaking about his father on behalf of the family, Dick Gregory’s son Yohance Maqubela almost didn’t know where to begin.
“Because the work that he has done is so dynamic, trying to give a sound-byte about him is one of the most difficult things on the planet to do,” Maqubela said.
The comedy legend, activist, health and nutrition advocate, and best-selling author passed away on Saturday, August 19 at the age of 84.
“He taught us how to laugh. He taught us how to fight. He taught us how to live,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson said via Twitter. “Dick Gregory was committed to justice. I miss him already.”
Though the St. Louis native became a pioneer of humor by paving the way for black performers in mainstream comedy, Maqubela never even mentioned that part of Gregory’s life except to say that his father knew his place in the canon of comedy and used it to bring attention to the causes he worked for.
“My father truly believed that it was his responsibility – his mandate – to use every gift he had and every privilege given to him to fight every day for the advancement of the human race,” Maqubela said.
He offered up little-known facts about his father’s activism. How he traveled to Ethiopia during their period of famine in the early 1980s, giving away his nutritional products to the masses. How the resistance of Northern Ireland reached out to him for tips on how political prisoners should safely fast and engage in hunger strikes.
The irony – that he helped one group to eat and taught another how to starve – was not lost on Maqubela.
“If it had something to do with the uplifting of humanity,” Maqubela said, “he was there.”
Origins of an icon
Richard Claxton Gregory was born to Lucille and Preston Gregory on October 12, 1932 in St. Louis and raised in the historic neighborhood known as the Ville.
Growing up poor in a single-parent household during the Great Depression helped him to develop his sense of humor and a resolve to demand change when he witnessed inequality or injustice at an early age.
“It was vicious what we went through in this town,” Gregory said during his keynote address for the Missouri Statewide Kickoff of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday at Harris-Stowe State University in 2012.
He was a student – star track athlete and class president – at Sumner High School when he led his first civil rights campaign. At the time there were 11 high schools in the city – eight white and three black – and the conditions were so substandard and congested that it spurred Gregory into action.
“The students decided they didn’t like these conditions,” his younger brother Ronald Gregory, also a star track athlete, told The American in 2012. “So Dick said, ‘We don’t need to walk out just to walk out – if we are going to walk out, let’s organize.’”
The elder Gregory helped unify the students at all three of the black schools. The Sumner students walked out and marched to Vashon High School and picked those students up. The Sumner and Vashon youth walked to Washington Tech High School, and then all three schools marched together to the St. Louis Board of Education.
“They marched to the board in the fall of 1951,” Ronald Gregory said. “And in the start of January ‘52, the incoming freshman went to their own building at the site of the old Bates Elementary School – and they filled the whole school up. That lets you know how crowded it had to be at Sumner.”
Even before the march, Dick Gregory fought for black student athletes to have the opportunity to compete on the state level.
“At the time he started running, black and white athletes weren’t allowed to compete together,” Ronald Gregory said. “Missouri state track championships and cross country was exclusively for white athletes. And he pushed legislation, telling them that they had to open this door.”
Dick Gregory went on to become the first African American to win the Missouri state mile title at the state cross country championships.
The track at Sumner High School was eventually named after Gregory and his brother – who became acclaimed distance runners in high school and college.
First black crossover comic
After being drafted in the military derailed his college career, Gregory eventually settled in Chicago in 1956 and decided he would make a life for himself as a standup comedian. His big break came when he became a last-minute replacement at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club in 1961.
His racially charged observations made Hefner an instant fan and quickly catapulted Gregory into the national spotlight. He was the first black standup comedian to cross over into mainstream entertainment.
“Dick Gregory used his razor-sharp wit to slice open and expose the racial injustices that are a continuing reality for people of color in America – and he forever changed the landscape of black comedy in the process,” said Donald M. Suggs, executive editor and publisher of The St. Louis American.
“He became a national sensation in the early 1960s, but after he joined a demonstration for black voting rights in Mississippi in 1962, he became a dedicated activist for social change. As a participant in the Civil Rights Movement, he not only put his livelihood – but also his life – at risk.”
He was comedy’s first black star, but he chose to focus on the movement work instead of his career after getting a call from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“It was Dick Gregory that went with us around to the bars and pool halls,” Andrew Young, a civil rights icon in his own right, said about Gregory in the television special “Why We Laugh.” “He was there to help people to realize that the only way this movement could be defeated is if people lost their cool and got angry.”
Eventually it became too taxing to do both, so he walked away from comedy at the height of his fame and popularity to fully devote himself to the fight for civil rights.
His activism came first – before his career and even before his family.
“Because of his commitment to constantly work for social change, at best he was home 60 days out of the year – at best,” Maqubela said. “But when we did see him, he was Dad. And he made sure to include us in his work in activism.”
Lillian Gregory, his wife of 59 years, was pregnant with one of their 11 children when she spent a week in jail during the unrest in Selma.
“As a family, all of us understood that this work was not going to just be done by him,” Maqubela said. “One of my sisters, Ayanna Gregory, jokes about the fact that in our family, being arrested in the name of civil rights was a badge of honor.”
Accessible and committed
One character trait that set Gregory apart among other celebrities of his caliber was his accessibility. He never traveled with bodyguards. His home number was listed in the phonebook. If he was home, he would answer. If he had the time, would lend himself to causes, big or small.
“When someone was in need – whether it was at the level of Dr. King or Medgar Evers, or it was a small boy in a rural town who felt he had been done an injustice – Dick Gregory was there,” Maqubela said. “He would travel to the top universities, being paid tens of thousands of dollars to speak. At the same time, he would travel on his own dime and pass up paid engagements for those who he felt needed his support.”
It was when they helped their father begin to carry his torch that the Gregory children truly grasped an understanding of their father’s status as a global treasure.
“The love our community had for our father, when he would be out about around this country – and the world – he would want for nothing,” said Maqubela. “Because they knew that Dick Gregory would fight for them, and that’s exactly what he did up until the very end.”
As an author, speaker and activist who even returned to his comedy roots for special engagements, Gregory kept up with the rigorous demands of his time up until a couple of months before he passed away.
Maqubela spent the last couple of weeks before he was hospitalized working with him in editing and finalizing what would be his last book, “Defining Moments of Black History: Read Between the Lies.”
He kept his love for humanity top of mind.
“He said this up until the day he died – it was literally written on the dry-erase board in his hospital room – ‘Be loving and lovable.’ For him, it was not about being loved; it was ‘are you loving and lovable to those you are interacting with?’ That was him, always putting others first.”
Dick Gregory is survived by his wife Lillian, ten of their children, and a host of grandchildren, family and friends. Funeral arrangements are pending.