Comedian and Civil Rights Activist Dick Gregory Dead at 84

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Comedian Dick Gregory—who attacked racism through a biting and satirical style of comedy, and was equally well-known for his civil rights activism and advocacy of an austere health regimen—died Saturday, Aug. 19 at the age of 84. Gregory’s family confirmed his death with a post on Instagram.

Born Oct. 12, 1932, in St. Louis, Gregory grew up in an impoverished community in that city. He helped to support his family from an early age. In high school he excelled in track and field, earning a scholarship to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He set school records in the 1/2-mile and 1-mile races. His college career was interrupted when the U.S. Army drafted him in 1954.

Gregory began to venture into comedy while in the Army, performing various routines in military shows. After briefly returning to Southern Illinois after being discharged in 1956, he moved to Chicago to join the national comedy circuit, without finishing his degree. He performed mostly in small, primarily black nightclubs while working at the U.S. Postal Service during the day. It was at one of those nightclubs that he met Lillian, the woman who became his wife in 1959. She and Gregory would have 10 children.

His big break came in 1961, when a one-night show at the Chicago Playboy Club turned into a two-month engagement. Time magazine profiled him, and he landed an appearance on The Jack Paar Show. Gregory was a new phenomenon: a black comedian performing for white audiences. He was also part of a new generation of black comedians, including Nipsey Russell, Bill Cosby and Godfrey Cambridge, who shunned the stereotypical comedic minstrel show. In his routines, Gregory tackled issues of the day—especially racism and civil rights—head on. A sampling of his stand-up: “Segregation is not all bad. Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?”

During this time, Gregory became very active in the civil rights movement. He spoke before the voter-registration drive known as Freedom Day on Oct. 7, 1963, and made appearances at a number of other rallies, marches and benefits. In 1963 he was jailed in Birmingham, Ala. He was also an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War.

In 1964 Gregory released his autobiography Nigger, about his experiences with America’s color line, starting in boyhood; it has since sold more than 7 million copies. In response to his mother’s objection over the incendiary title, he wrote in the foreword, “Whenever you hear the word ‘nigger,’ you’ll know they’re advertising my book.”

Gregory’s political activism led him to run, unsuccessfully, for mayor of Chicago in 1966 and for the presidency as a write-in candidate of the Freedom and Peace Party in 1968. Of his presidential campaign, he wrote in the 1968 book Write Me In! about how one-dollar bills that the campaign had printed with Gregory’s picture on them had made their way into the money supply. The federal government managed to seize most of the bills, and Gregory avoided criminal charges.

Throughout his life, Gregory remained outspoken on many issues, including world hunger, capital punishment, women’s rights (he marched for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1978), health care and drug abuse. In 2005, at a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, he called the U.S. “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.” As a protester, Gregory never stopped putting himself on the front lines: In 2004, at the age of 73, he was arrested while protesting against genocide outside the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, D.C.

In the 1970s, after moving to Massachusetts, Gregory became very interested in vegetarianism, nutrition and overall fitness, eventually advocating a diet of raw fruits and vegetables (this from a man who once weighed 350 pounds, drank heavily and smoked several packs of cigarettes a day). He was particularly opposed to the typical soul food diet, attributing to it much of African Americans’ disproportionate health challenges. In 1984 he launched Dick Gregory Health Enterprises Inc., which sold Slim-Safe Bahamian Diet, a very profitable weight-loss program. The business was shuttered, however, after a conflict with his business partners.

Gregory’s nutritional and political views often found common ground in his sometimes extreme fasting in protest of or support for various issues. During one hunger strike, which he embarked on in Iran in 1980 to obtain the release of U.S. Embassy staff who had been taken hostage, his weight dropped to a reported 97 pounds.

He was also an active proponent of conspiracy theories, no doubt fueled by the assassinations he’d witnessed in the 1960s. Gregory was particularly skeptical about the official U.S. report concerning the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C.: “One thing I know is that the official government story of those events, as well as what took place that day at the Pentagon, is just that, a story. This story is not the truth, but far from it.”

Gregory announced in 2000 that he’d been diagnosed with lymphoma, but he refused traditional treatment, instead turning to a nutritional regimen, exercise and other alternative therapies, and eventually declaring himself

cancer free. “An Evening of Reflections with Dick Gregory,” a gala held at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., honored Gregory that same year. Celebrities in attendance included Bill Cosby, Cicely Tyson, Paul Mooney, Stevie Wonder and Isaac Hayes.

Gregory, who was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, is ranked at No. 81 on Comedy Central’s list of the 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time. He also has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame and received numerous awards for his civil rights and health activism. Despite his abbreviated career there, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1989.

Will ‘BlackOut’ Be the Movement to Shut Down the NFL?

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This should be an interesting football season, and year, for that matter, as many American institutions are messily having their come-to-Jesus moments.

For the last two days, a video has been circulating on social media (primarily Facebook) with various black men – shades, ages, professions, geographical locations – covering their favorite NFL jerseys with a black T-shirt.

#Black0utNFL is part of a burgeoning and increasingly surging stand against the National Football League, whose owners have decided to make an example of former quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who decided to stand for black lives so callously cut down with regularity and impunity.

Pastor Debliare Snell, of the First SDA Church in Huntsville, Ala., spoke openly on why he is behind the #BlackOut movement in the video.

“In 2016, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick engaged in a silent nonviolent protest,” said Snell. “He did this to raise awareness to the number of brown and black individuals that had been beaten or killed at the hands of law enforcement across this country. Since the end of last season, as a result of this protest, Colin Kaepernick has been unable to find employment in the NFL. I find that strange seeing that the NFL has employed individuals that have been convicted of sexual assault, domestic violence, cruelty to animals, along with driving while under the influence.”

Snell goes on to say that he finds it “interesting” that certain NFL owners have come out on the record saying they are not hiring Kaepernick because they feel a “backlash” from a certain segment of their fan base but have no fear of African Americans, which Snell claims are 15 percent of NFL viewers (not to mention a majority of its players).

“My belief is simply this—if Colin Kaepernick was willing to take a stand for those of us who are noncelebrities who have to interact with law enforcement on a day to day basis …certainly we can take a stand and stand with him.”

The #BlackOut movement advocates four actions steps:

1. Boycott the NFL (no games, no fantasy football, no jerseys, no nothing).

2. Commit to one-two hours during the NFL season to using the time you would have watching games to mentor young black boys and girls.

3. Spread the word to others.

4. “Take a knee” in prayer at 6 a.m. each morning.

On Aug. 23, Spike Lee and others are planning to march on the NFL headquarters in New York City to protest against what many say is a hypocritical and, in a word, racist, NFL. Additionally, some players have begun sitting out the National Anthem during NFL preseason games.

NYPD Rally, Sing ‘Black National Anthem’ in Support of Colin Kaep

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Some have confused Colin Kaepernick’s stance against police violence as an edict against police.

Yet, a contingent of mostly black police officers … and NYPD whistleblower Frank Serpico … gathered Saturday in New York to show the blackballed former QB much love.

The cops and a slew of activists, politicians and others came together under the Brooklyn bridge to stand with Kaepernick, who many feel risked his livelihood by taking a stand against injustice by kneeling during the National Anthem during the 2016 football season.

And in what would surely delight many, the dozens of officers, donning black shirts with the logo “#ImWithKap” sang the “Black National Anthem,” formally known as “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson

“What Colin Kaepernick did is try to bring awareness that this nation unfortunately has ignored for far too long,” said NYPD Sgt. Edwin Raymond, who helped organize the Brooklyn event, according to the New York Daily News.

“And that’s the issue of racism in America and policing in America. We decided to gather here today because of the way he’s being railroaded for speaking the obvious truth,” Raymond added.

Frank Serpico, famously played by Al Pacino in the 1973 film, Serpico, also turned out in support.

“I am here to support anyone who has the courage to stand up against injustice and oppression anywhere in this country and the world,” said the 81-year-old former detective who exposed corruption in the New York City police.

Support for Kaepernick seems to be coming to a crescendo just three weeks before the official start of the season, with the #BlackOutNFL movement and a planned protest in front of the NFL headquarters in New York on Aug. 23.

 

“The fact that this man is no longer in the NFL has nothing to do with stats on the football field, but for taking a knee and pointing out some of the flaws that have been tormenting people of color in this country for decades,” said Darius Gordon of the Justice League NYC.

 

 

 

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