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Comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, St. Louis-born and bred, dies at 84

Dick Gregory is pictured at an August 2015 rally in Washington, D.C., to mark the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown's death
Elvert Barnes Protest Photography | Flickr
Dick Gregory is pictured at an August 2015 rally in Washington, D.C., to mark the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown's death

Updated Aug. 25 with "St. Louis on the Air" audio — An excerpt of a conversation with Dick Gregory from Jan. 2003.

Original story from Aug. 20:

As Dick Gregory’s brother tells it, the comedian and civil rights activist “just saw things that was wrong and decided ‘I was going to do whatever I could and right them.’”

It was that determination, Ron Gregory told St. Louis Public Radio in an interview Sunday, that pushed his brother beyond St. Louis’ confines and onto the national stage.

Dick Gregory died Saturday at the age of 84, according to a Facebook post by his son, Christian Gregory. The Associated Press reported that he died after being hospitalized for about a week.

Ron spoke with him Saturday, and said there were a lot of visitors in the hospital room.

“When they was walking out of the room, he was saying goodbye to them like he knew it was over, you know, don’t expect to come back and see me tomorrow. But … we’re at the age where we have to accept the realities of life,” Ron Gregory said.

Dick Gregory was born in St. Louis in 1932. His first protest wasin 1951, when he was a senior at Sumner High School. The St. Louis school board didn't want to replace three aging, overcrowded black high schools — Vashon, Washington and Sumner. He led a walkout, and the district opened a new building the following year.

In a 2010 interview with St. Louis Public Radio, he described what it was like going to high school at Sumner.

“In St. Louis, we had three Negro high schools, Sumner, Vashon and Washington Tech. And at no time did we see white teachers. There was no white teacher there, the only thing white pertaining to the school was the superintendent of the schools, everything else was black,” he said. “And because of the rigid segregation pattern, we were blessed in a sad way that we had high school teachers with two and three PhDs. … Why? Because where, 60 years ago, is a black person with a PhD gonna work?”

He continued: “I had one of the fine minds on the planet, no telling where my head would be if I was in a school system now with diversity.”

 St. Louis native Dick Gregory also was a guest on "St. Louis on the Air" in 2003 with host Mike Sampson. On August 25, 2017, we listened to an excerpt of that conversation.

Gregory attended Southern Illinois University-Carbondale for a while and was an athlete there. He later moved to Chicago to pursue his comedy career.

Gregory was one of the first black comedians to find mainstream success with white audiences in the early 1960s.

But he also became known for his political and social activism, especially his barbed wit on U.S. race relations. He attended the historic 1963 March on Washington. Forty years later, Gregory told Tavis Smiley on NPR about his experience at the march, describing it as "joy. It was festivity, and as far as the human eye could see." Hunger strikes were a frequent activist tool for Gregory.

He told Juan Williams on Talk of the Nation that he went without solid food for two and a half years to protest the war in Vietnam. Gregory came to St. Louis during the late 1970s during a hunger strike by Freeman Bosley Sr. to protest the Homer G. Phillips Hospital closing. And in 2000, Gregory went on a hunger strike to protest police brutality, long before the current wave of activism.

Gregory appeared in St. Louis several times to perform his stand-up comedy routine. In 1992, he was arrested in the Central West End and accused of shoplifting, but the charge was dropped. Gregory noted that he had $900 in his pocket that day.

U.S. Rep Lacy Clay, a Democrat who’s from St. Louis, said Gregory was a family friend for more than 60 years, “and I have been blessed to know him my entire life.”

Gregory was “a comic genius and a fearless champion for civil rights, social justice and equity,” Clay said in a statement, adding: “He was a St. Louis legend and a national treasure.”

Gregory was married for more than 50 years and had 10 children.

This story combines reporting from St. Louis Public Radio’s Camille Phillips, Rachel Lippmann and Jo Mannies, NPR’s James Doubek and Emma Bowman and The Associated Press. Follow Camille, Rachel and Jo on Twitter: @cmpcamille, @rlippmann and @jmannies

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.