Dick Gregory, the pioneering black satirist who transformed cool humor into a barbed force for civil rights in the 1960s, then veered from his craft for a life devoted to protest and fasting in the name of assorted social causes, health regimens and conspiracy theories, died Saturday in Washington. He was 84.
Mr. Gregory’s son, Christian Gregory, who announced his death on social media, said more details would be released in the coming days. Mr. Gregory had been admitted to a hospital on Aug. 12, his son said in an earlier Facebook post.
Early in his career Mr. Gregory insisted in interviews that his first order of business onstage was to get laughs, not to change how white America treated Negroes (the accepted word for African-Americans at the time). “Humor can no more find the solution to race problems than it can cure cancer,” he said. Nonetheless, as the civil rights movement was kicking into high gear, whites who caught his club act or listened to his routines on records came away with a deeper feel for the nation’s shameful racial history.
Mr. Gregory was a breakthrough performer in his appeal to whites — a crossover star, in contrast to veteran black comedians like Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley and Slappy White, whose earthy, pungent humor was mainly confined to black clubs on the so-called chitlin circuit.
Though he clearly seethed over the repression of blacks, he resorted to neither scoldings nor lectures when playing big-time rooms like the hungry i in San Francisco or the Village Gate in New York. Rather, he won audiences over with wry observations about the country’s racial chasm.
He would plant himself on a stool, the picture of insouciance in a three-button suit and dark tie, dragging slowly on a cigarette, which he used as a punctuation mark. From that perch he would bid America to look in the mirror, and to laugh at itself.
“Segregation is not all bad,” he would say. “Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?” Or: “You know the definition of a Southern moderate? That’s a cat that’ll lynch you from a low tree.” Or: “I heard we’ve got lots of black astronauts. Saving them for the first spaceflight to the sun.”
Some lines became classics, like the one about a restaurant waitress in the segregated South who told him, “We don’t serve colored people here,” to which Mr. Gregory replied: “That’s all right, I don’t eat colored people. Just bring me a whole fried chicken.” Lunch-counter sit-ins, central to the early civil rights protests, did not always work out as planned. “I sat in at a lunch counter for nine months,” he said. “When they finally integrated, they didn’t have what I wanted.”
Mr. Gregory was a national sensation in the early 1960s, earning thousands of dollars a week from club dates and from records like “In Living Black and White” and “Dick Gregory Talks Turkey.” He wrote the first of his dozen books. Time magazine, enormously powerful then, ran a profile of him. Jack Paar, that era’s “Tonight Show” host, had him on as a guest — after Mr. Gregory demanded that he be invited to sit for a chat. Until then, black performers did their numbers, then had to leave. Time on Paar’s sofa was a sign of having arrived.