Dick Gregory, the groundbreaking 84-year-old stand-up comedian and civil rights activist, died Saturday in Washington, D.C., from heart failure resulting from a severe bacterial infection, his son Christian told the Associated Press. Years of fasting for human rights “damaged his vasculature system,” ABC News reported.
The comedian’s publicist and longtime friend, Steve Jaffe, told the Los Angeles Times that Gregory was still touring on the east coast earlier in August before falling ill, and had appearances scheduled at the Hollywood Improv later this week.
Known as a “fruitatarian” and nutritional expert, Dick Gregory did not eat meat for humanitarian reasons, and also did not frequently fast for his own health benefits, Christian Gregory told the Associated Press.
“Years of severe fasting, not for health but for social change, had damaged his vasculature system long ago. He always reminded us, many of his fasts were not about his personal health but an attempt to heal the world.”
Gregory was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2000, and caused the disease to go into remission through herbs, exercise, and fasting, Al Jazeera reported. The comedian/activist staged other hunger strikes on behalf of peace during the Vietnam War era. On June 23, Gregory told Alkhalife that he had fasted on water for 180 days, and on juices for over two years to draw attention to animal rights, Middle East peace, and police brutality.
In the 1980s, Gregory became an early proponent of plant-based foods and a successful nutrition entrepreneur with his 700-calorie Slim Safe/Bahamian Diet rapid weight loss powder. Flashbak reported that in 1988, Dick Gregory’s nutritional guidance helped 1,400-pound Walter Hudson lose over 600 pounds.
Hudson, who died in 1992, was able to walk and leave his home for the first time in 18 years after Gregory’s intervention. Another group of 13 obese, health-threatened people lost hundreds of pounds at Gregory’s International Health Institute in the Bahamas.
The Independent reported that “The Dick Gregory Diet” consisted of vegetable juice, powdered kelp, and raw broccoli. He helped John Lennon detox with nutritional advice, and Lennon told Rolling Stone that a “prayer book” by Gregory was the inspiration for his 1971 classic “Imagine.”
Gregory was regarded as the “Jackie Robinson of stand-up comedy,” according to Variety, as the first African-American comedian to break the color barrier in all-white nightclubs when he appeared at Hugh Hefner’s Chicago Playboy Club in 1961. His activism spanned some of the 20th century’s most dramatic conflicts. He was frequently arrested during Civil Rights-era protests, including a five-day jail stay in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, where he had traveled at the request of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. While urging nonviolence during the 1965 Watts uprising, Gregory was shot in the leg.
In 1980, during the Iran hostage crisis, he flew to Tehran to meet with Ayatollah Khomeini and students holding 52 Americans hostage at the U.S. Embassy. Gregory stayed in Iran for four months while staging one of his legendary hunger strikes. When he left the country, he weighed 106 pounds.
In 2016, John Legend co-produced an off-Broadway show about Gregory’s life, Turn Me Loose, starring Scandal’s Emmy-award winning Joe Morton. Barack Obama told IFC’s Marc Maron that Gregory was one of his favorite comedians, along with Richard Pryor. Pryor told Independent correspondent Richard Chalmers in 2004 that “Dick Gregory was the greatest, and he was the first. Somebody had to break down that door.”
Many fans’ first exposure to Gregory was his diet and nutrition advice.
“Our Revolution” leader Nina Turner recognized Gregory’s sense of humor and commitment to human rights.
Selma, Thirteenth, and the upcoming A Wrinkle in Time director Ava DuVernay shared one of Gregory’s inspirational Instagram messages from earlier this year, while giving thanks for his guidance in spiritual matters, human rights, and health.
Before he launched his weight loss products in the 1980s earning millions, social activism cost Gregory much of the wealth he was slated to earn after his breakthroughs into white comedy clubs and television. When he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2015, Gregory told Variety’s Andrew Barker that he made $1,500 the year before he appeared on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar, and $3.5 million the following year. When Barker asked him why it took so long for him to get a star on Hollywood Boulevard, he responded with he following.
“You know damn good and well why it took so long. I’ve been a bad boy.”
Government documents released in 1978 showed that former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover targeted the anti-war activist for “neutralization” by the mafia in 1968, according to the Washington Post. Hoover’s memo, revealed by a 1977 Freedom of Information Act request for “Cointerlpro” files on actions against black Americans, encouraged agents to contact “La Cosa Nostra” to notify them of anti-organized crime statements Gregory had made.
Hours after his death, Neil deGrasse Tyson recognized Dick Gregory’s lifelong fight for justice on Twitter.
Dick Gregory’s first book, the autobiography Ni**er, (title starred out by the Inquisitr) was published in 1964. Defining Moments in Black History: Reading Between the Lies, Gregory’s most recent book featuring provocative essays, will be published on September 19, 2017. Survived by his wife of over 50 years, Lillian, and 10 children, Dick Gregory’s life spanned the Depression to Barack Obama’s election as America’s first black president and beyond. His nutritional advice predated current raw and vegan advocacy by three decades.
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