Dick Gregory was a highly influential African American comedian who has used his stand-up talents as a launch pad for social protest and, later, conspiracy theories. He was also well known as a health food and diet entrepreneur.
Gregory got his start in stand-up comedy in the U.S. Army after being drafted in 1954, where he won numerous Army-sponsored talent shows. After leaving the military, he moved to Chicago, where his stand-up career took off. After unsuccessfully attempting to run his own club, Gregory became master of ceremonies at the predominantly black venue Roberts Show Club.
As one of the first African American comedians to draw large white audiences, Gregory used humor to address current events, particularly the growing Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War in the 1960s.
With Hugh Hefner as an early supporter, Gregory soon released a string of comedy albums and appeared on numerous TV programs, including "The Tonight Show," where he performed his increasingly socially aware nightclub routine for national viewers. In 1964, he published an autobiography that has since sold more than a million copies.
By the end of the decade, Gregory's live career started taking a backseat to his activism, which expanded to include women’s rights, economic equality, the anti-Apartheid movement and other social issues. He often engaged in hunger strikes as a form of protest. He also questioned the official rulings on the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the latter in a book he co-wrote titled "Code Name 'Zorro': The Murder of Martin Luther King, Jr."
His activism culminated in a 1966 candidacy for the mayor of Chicago, followed by a 1968 run for president of the United States as a write-in candidate of the Freedom and Peace Party. His presidential campaign spawned a memoir titled "Write Me In."
A longtime vegetarian, Gregory founded Health Enterprises in 1984 and launched the successful Bahamian Diet weight-loss program to combat the growing U.S. obesity crisis. Gregory is also an outspoken opponent of alcohol and drug abuse, citing the difficulty in finding dry venues to perform in as a reason for performing infrequently throughout the '70s and '80s. "I didn't want to be a part of it," he told the L.A. Times in 1995, upon returning to the stage. "I said I would perform anywhere where there's no alcohol, that's all."
Gregory has continued to make appearances on TV, on stage and on the college lecture circuit. His recent conspiracy theories have often involved the alleged duplicity of the federal government and the corruption of the press, and he is an outspoken 9/11 "truther."
"Some people say to me 'America; love it or leave it,' and I say I won't love it because it's not a friendly country, and I won't leave it until I personally straighten it out," Gregory pronounced at a 1988 appearance at UC Irvine.
Gregory died August 17, 2017, of heart failure at a hospital in Washington, D.C. He was 84.