Richard Claxton Gregory was born on October 12, 1932, in St. Louis, Missouri. At an early age, Gregory found the power of comedy to defend himself against childhood bullies. “They were going to laugh anyway, but if I made the jokes they’d laugh with me instead of at me,” he wrote in his 1964 autobiography. “After a while, I could say anything I wanted. I got a reputation as a funny man. And then I started to turn the jokes on them
In high school, he also became a track star and showed a thirst for activism when he protested against segregated schools. He was later accepted to Southern Illinois University where he excelled in track, and in 1954, he was drafted into the Army. He began performing stand-up comedy at this time, and after winning a talent contest, he became part of the Army's entertainment division.
Segregation is not all bad. Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?
Gregory worked as an emcee at various Chicago clubs, honing his craft working the comedy circuit while taking on odd jobs. His trailblazing style of satirical humor tackled racial issues and sociopolitical topics pulled straight from contemporary headlines.
Gregory’s big break came in 1961 at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club in Chicago, where the comedian, as a replacement act, performed in front of a room of white executives visiting from the segregated South. Nonetheless, Gregory was a huge success and became a crossover star.
The comedian had his run at the club extended by weeks and went on to become a national comedy headliner. That same year, Gregory made history when he appeared on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show after making it clear he wanted to be invited to sit on the couch to chat with the host like white entertainers, becoming the first African-American guest to do so. After his appearance, Gregory became a recurring guest on the show.
Gregory was at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement during the ‘60s, and became friends with pivotal figures including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers. He was arrested dozens of times because of his activism. While jailed in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, he wrote that he had received “the first really good beating I ever had in my life.”
He continued his political activism throughout the 1960s. He unsuccessfully ran against Richard Daley in 1967 for the office of mayor of Chicago. A year later, he also ran for U.S. president as a write-in candidate with the Freedom and Peace Party during the electoral showdown between Richard Nixon and Hubert H. Humphrey.
Over the years, Gregory became devoted to health and fitness, adopting a vegetarian diet and examining issues related to diet within African-American communities. He became a noted university lecturer and also regularly went on hunger strikes to bring awareness to various global issues including the Vietnam War, women's rights, apartheid in South Africa, police brutality and American Indian rights.
During the mid-'80s, the comedian/activist launched a weight-loss business known as the Slim/Safe Bahamian Diet. He eventually filed a lawsuit against his business partners and experienced major financial troubles that led to the loss of his family's 40-acre farm in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
In his later years, Gregory became known for supporting various conspiracy theories about the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and John and Robert Kennedy, the crack cocaine epidemic and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He also turned away from stand-up for a time, preferring to stay out of clubs where liquor was served, but he later made his way back to performing.
I've always been insulted when people tell me that my humor has done a lot for race relations. I never thought comedy did anything but make uncomfortable people feel comfortable.