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Richard Claxton "Dick" Gregory (born October 12, 1932) is an American civil rights activist, social critic, writer, entrepreneur, and comedian.
Gregory was a poor student who excelled at running, and was aided by teachers at Sumner High School, among them Warren St. James. Gregory earned a track scholarship to Southern Illinois University Carbondale. There he set school records as a half-miler and miler. His college career was interrupted for two years in 1954 when he was drafted into the U.S. Army. The Army was where he got his start in comedy, entering and winning several Army talent shows at the urging of his commanding officer, who had taken notice of Gregory's penchant for joking. In 1956, Gregory briefly returned to SIU after his discharge, but dropped out because he felt that the university "didn't want me to study, they wanted me to run".
In the hopes of performing comedy professionally, Gregory moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he became part of a new generation of black comedians that included Nipsey Russell, Bill Cosby, and Godfrey Cambridge, all of whom broke with the minstrel tradition, which presented stereotypical black characters. Gregory drew on current events, especially racial issues, for much of his material: "Segregation is not all bad. Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?".
Gregory began his career as a comedian while serving in the military in the mid 1950s. He served in the army for a year and a half at Fort Hood in Texas, Fort Lee in Virginia and Fort Smith in Arkansas. He was drafted in 1954 while attending Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. After being discharged in 1956 he returned to the university but did not receive a degree. With a desire to perform comedy professionally, he moved to Chicago.
In 1958, Gregory opened a nightclub called the Apex Club in Illinois. The club failed, landing Gregory in financial hardship. In 1959, Gregory landed a job as master of ceremonies at the Roberts Show Club.
Gregory performed as a comedian in small, primarily black-patronized nightclubs while working for the United States Postal Service during the daytime. He was one of the first black comedians to gain widespread acclaim performing for white audiences. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Gregory describes the history of black comics as limited: "Blacks could sing and dance in the white night clubs but weren't allowed to stand flat-footed and talk to white folks, which is what a comic does."
In 1961, while working at the Black-owned Roberts Show Bar in Chicago, he was spotted by Hugh Hefner performing the following material before a largely white audience:
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I understand there are a good many Southerners in the room tonight. I know the South very well. I spent twenty years there one night.
Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant and this white waitress came up to me and said, "We don't serve colored people here." I said, "That's all right. I don't eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken."
Then these three white boys came up to me and said, "Boy, we're giving you fair warning. Anything you do to that chicken, we're gonna do to you". So I put down my knife and fork, I picked up that chicken and I kissed it. Then I said, "Line up, boys!"
Gregory attributes the launch of his career to Hugh Hefner, who watched him perform at Herman Roberts Show Bar. Based on that performance, Hefner hired Gregory to work at the Chicago Playboy Club as a replacement for comedian Professor Irwin Corey.
Gregory's first TV appearance was on the late night The Tonight Show Starring Jack Paar. He soon began appearing nationally and on television.
Early in Dick Gregory's career, he was offered a gig on The Tonight Show Starring Jack Paar. Paar's show was known for helping propel entertainers to the next level of their careers. At the time, black comics did perform on the show but were never asked to stay after their performances to sit on the famous couch and talk with the host. Dick Gregory declined the invitation to perform on the show several times until finally Jack Paar called him to find out why he refused to perform on the show. Eventually, in order to have Gregory perform, the producers agreed to allow him to stay after his performance and talk with the host on air. This was a first in the show's history. Dick Gregory's interview on The Tonight Show spurred conversations across America. His interview provided an opportunity for viewers to see an African American in a positive and humane light.[citation?]
Active in the Civil Rights Movement, on October 7, 1963, Gregory came to Selma, Alabama and spoke for two hours on a public platform two days before the voter registration drive known as "Freedom Day" (October 7, 1963).
In 1964, Gregory became more involved in civil rights activities, activism against the Vietnam War, economic reform, anti-drug issues, conspiracy theories, and others. As a part of his activism, he went on several hunger strikes and campaigns in America and overseas.
Gregory began his political career by running against Richard J. Daley for the mayoralty of Chicago in 1967. Though he did not emerge victorious, this would not prove to be the end of his dalliances in electoral politics.
Gregory unsuccessfully ran for President of the United States in 1968 as a write-in candidate of the Freedom and Peace Party, which had broken off from the Peace and Freedom Party. He garnered 47,097 votes (including one from Hunter S. Thompson) with fellow activist Mark Lane as his running mate in some states, David Frost in others, and Dr. Benjamin Spock in Virginia and Pennsylvania garnering more than the party he had left. The Freedom and Peace Party also ran other candidates, including Beulah Sanders for New York State Senate and Flora Brown for New York State Assembly. His efforts landed him on the master list of Nixon political opponents.
Gregory then wrote the book Write Me In about his presidential campaign. One interesting anecdote therein relates the story of a publicity stunt that came out of Operation Breadbasket in Chicago where the campaign had printed dollar bills with Gregory's image on them, some of which made it into circulation, causing considerable problems, but priceless publicity.
The majority of these bills were quickly seized by the federal government. A large contributing factor to the seizure came from the bills resembling authentic US currency enough that they worked in many dollar-cashing machines of the time. Gregory avoided being charged with a federal crime, later joking that the bills couldn't really be considered US currency because "everyone knows a black man will never be on a US bill." For modest prices the bills are still readily available from online auction sites.
Shortly after this time Gregory became an outspoken critic of the Warren Commission findings that President John Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald. On March 6, 1975, Gregory and assassination researcher Robert Groden appeared on Geraldo Rivera's late night ABC talk show Goodnight America. An important historical event happened that night when the famous Zapruder film of JFK's assassination was shown to the public on TV for the first time. The public's response and outrage to its showing led to the forming of the Hart-Schweiker investigation, which contributed to the Church Committee Investigation on Intelligence Activities by the United States, which resulted in the House Select Committee on Assassinations investigation.
Gregory is an outspoken feminist, and in 1978 joined Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, Margaret Heckler, Barbara Mikulski, and other suffragists to lead the National ERA March for Ratification and Extension, a march down Pennsylvania Avenue to the United States Capitol of over 100,000 on Women's Equality Day (August 26), 1978 to demonstrate for a ratification deadline extension for the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution, and for the ratification of the ERA. The march was ultimately successful in extending the deadline to June 30, 1982, and Gregory joined other activists to the Senate for celebration and victory speeches by pro-ERA Senators, Members of Congress, and activists. The ERA still narrowly failed to be ratified by the extended ratification date, however, but the Women's Movement was largely successful in securing gender equality in the laws and society.
On July 21, 1979, Gregory appeared at the Amandla Festival where Bob Marley, Patti LaBelle, and Eddie Palmieri, amongst others, had performed. Gregory gave a speech before Marley's performance, blaming President Carter, and showing his support for the international Anti-Apartheid movements. Gregory and Mark Lane conducted landmark research into the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which helped move the U.S. House Select Assassinations Committee to investigate the murder, along with that of John F. Kennedy. Lane was author of conspiracy theory books such as Rush to Judgment. The pair wrote the King conspiracy book Code Name Zorro, which postulated that convicted assassin James Earl Ray did not act alone. Gregory has also argued that the moon landing was faked and the commonly accepted account of the 9/11 attacks is incorrect, among other conspiracy theories.
Gregory was an outspoken activist during the US Embassy Hostage Crisis in Iran. In 1980 he traveled to Tehran to attempt to negotiate the hostages' release and engaged in a public hunger strike there, weighing less than 100 pounds (45 kg) when he returned to the United States.
In 1998 Gregory spoke at the celebration of the birthday of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. with President Bill Clinton in attendance. Not long after, the President told Gregory's long-time friend and public relations Consultant Steve Jaffe, "I love Dick Gregory; he is one of the funniest people on the planet." They spoke of how Gregory had made a comment on Dr. King's birthday that broke everyone into laughter, when he noted that the President made Speaker Newt Gingrich ride "in the back of the plane," on an Air Force One trip overseas.