Dick Gregory has died. The renowned civil rights activist, author, and comedian was admitted to a hospital on Friday, August, 18th, according to Vibe magazine. His son explained that he had been feeling ill, and was diagnosed with a “serious” medical condition. His death was announced the following evening. He was 84.
Numerous figures in politics and the entertainment industry have taken to Twitter to pay their respects to Gregory. Among the most notable include Rev. Jesse Jackson, comedian Bill Cosby and singer John Legend.
Here’s what you need to know about Gregory, his death, and his influential life:
1. He Was An Avid Supporter of Civil Rights & the Feminist Movement
Gregory, born Richard Claxton Gregory, was at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s, becoming friends with the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Despite his image as an entertainer, Gregory spoke frankly on the importance of equality for African Americans as well as other minorities.
“What black folks are given in the U.S. on the installment plan, as in civil-rights bills,” he told Biography, “Not to be confused with human rights, which are the dignity, stature, humanity, respect, and freedom belonging to all people by right of their birth.”
He also participated in hunger strikes and protests against the Vietnam War and in promotion of Feminism, often times landing in jail as a result.
Gregory ran for President of the United States in 1968 as a write-in candidate. Though he garnered 47,097 votes, he lost the candidacy and subsequently landed on Richard Nixon’s famed “master list of political opponents.” He wrote an autobiography detailing his candidacy titled Write Me In.
His political passion did not lessen as he aged. At a rally marking the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he referred to the United States as “the most dishonest, ungodly, unspiritual nation that ever existed in the history of the planet. As we talk now, America is 5 percent of the world’s population and consumes 96 percent of the world’s hard drugs”.
2. He Broke Ground on Television Through His Comedic Work
Gregory began performing comedy during his military service in the 1950s. He struggled to jumpstart his career after returning to the United States, and it wasn’t until he performed at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club in Chicago in 1961 that he became known in the industry.
“It was the first time they had seen a black comic who was not bucking his eyes, wasn’t dancing and singing and telling mother-in-law jokes,” he told the Boston Globe in 2000, ”Just talking about what I read in the newspaper.”
From there, Gregory became a regular performer on Tonight Starring Jack Paar. He did so only after telling Paar that he wished to sit down and chat after his routine, making him the first African American comedian in the show’s history to do so.
In addition to comedy, Gregory appeared in the films House Party (1990) and The Hot Chick (2002). Gregory’s life was the also the subject of the 2016 stage play Turn Me Loose, where he was played by actor Joe Morton.
3. He Was Criticized for Being an Absentee Father to His 11 Children
Gregory married Lillian Smith in 1959. According to I Love Old School Music, Lillian became pregnant while they were dating, and Gregory’s mother insisted they marry: “No son of mine will ever get a girl pregnant and not marry her.” Gregory confirmed as much when he said “That’s how I got married. It was no glamour.” He and Lillian remained married until his death.
Due to his dedicated activism, however, Gregory was often criticized for being an absentee father to his children. In a 2000 piece titled “The Pain And Passion of Dick Gregory“, he reflected on this absentee reputation. “It was never in my psyche that I’m going to be a great father,” he said, “Mine was: I’m going to be a great fighter for the liberation, whatever it takes.”
He added: “People ask me about being a father and not being there. I say ‘Jack the Ripper had a father. Hitler had a father. Don’t talk to me about family.'”
4. He Was Diagnosed with Lymphoma in 1999
Gregory was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer in 1999. In an interview with Common Dreams, he recalls that Lillian broke down crying when he told her the news. “I said to her ‘If you think I’m going to leave you back here for your high school sweetheart, you are out of your mind. As much whiskey as I drank, as many cigarettes as I’ve smoked, I’m not going to leave this earth before you.'”
When asked how he felt about the diagnosis, he said “I will bother it, it won’t bother me.”
Gregory promptly turned to dieting and alternative treatments to chemotherapy, which he believes is the reason his lymphoma went into remission. In a 2004 interview, The Independent says he provided photographic evidence that all traces of lymphoma had been eliminated. He continued to promote health foods in the United States– a passion he held since the 1970s.
5. His Representative Says That He Died from Heart Failure
The circumstances surrounding Gregory’s death remain unclear. His son Christian Gregory posted an update on his father’s condition on Friday, which suggested that things were improving. “His prognosis is excellent and he should be released within the next few days,” he wrote on Facebook.
He did go on to add “When it comes to sickness and disease one’s age is highly significant. There is no such thing as a “simple” condition.” According to TMZ, however, a representative for Gregory reports that he died from heart failure.
It was Christian who confirmed the news of his passing on Instagram. “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,” he wrote.
Christian also said that “More details will be released in the next few days.”