Dick Gregory was the first widely-accepted black American stand-up comedian. He also showed incredible courage in the 1960s civil rights movement. In spite of being arrested and beaten up for being in the front lines of marches against racial prejudice and war, he advocated non-violence and fought brutality and prejudice with passive resistance, prayer and self-challenging fasting. He led protests against the Viet Nam War, anti-feminism, and cruelty to animals, and became a vegetarian and marathon runner. On August 19, 2017 at age 85, he died from shock caused by bleeding from a tear of the major arteries that take blood to the legs, called a bifurcated thoracic aortic aneurysm. At the time of his death, he also had an overwhelming urinary tract infection that had spread to his bloodstream. His immunity was unable to kill the infection probably because it was weakened by a previously-diagnosed immune cancer called lymphoma.
In 1932 he was born into severe poverty during the Great Depression in St Louis, as the second of six children. His father abandoned the family, and his loving mother supported her children by working as a maid. He was a track star in high school and won a track scholarship at Southern Illinois University where he set school records for both the half-mile and mile.
In 1954, after just two years in college, he was drafted and spent two years in the United States Army, where he entered and won an army talent show and was assigned to special services as an entertainer. He returned to SIU, but left because he was tired of the hard training required to be successful as a competitive runner.
Breaking Into Comedy
In 1959, he married Lillian Smith and they had 11 children during their more than fifty-five-year marriage. They moved to Chicago where he worked for the United States Postal Service in the daytime and got night jobs as a comedian in black-only night clubs. His segregated audiences loved his jokes such as, "Segregation is not that bad. Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?"
In 1961, he got his first big break. Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club in Chicago needed an emergency replacement for an absent entertainer, so he got to appear as a comedian before a room full of white executives visiting from the South. He said, "It was the first time they had seen a black comic who wasn't dancing and singing and telling mother-in-law jokes.'' He started his performance with: "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 a 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.'" After several weeks at the club, he received an invitation to appear on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show, and he became a national star.
In spite of his newly acquired fame, he found it difficult to get bookings at white night clubs. In the 1960s, I got to know him when he would show up for local running road races in Washington, D.C. My wife and I went to see him perform at a night club and we were the only Caucasians in the audience.
Civil Rights and Politics
By the 1960s, he was deeply involved in the fight for equality and helped to register black voters in the south. In 1963, he was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama where he was beaten severely. In 1967, he ran against, and lost to, Richard Daley for mayor of Chicago. In 1968, he ran for U.S. president against Richard Nixon and Hubert H. Humphrey.
On the stage, he told his audiences that he admired baseball great Willie Mays because he was one African-American "who could shake a stick at a white man and not cause a riot." He said that America was great for him because he was brought up in the worst neighborhoods, sometimes without electricity or food, attended the worst schools, rode in the back of the bus, and was now paid $5,000 a week just to talk about it.
His Remarkable Lifestyle Transformation
By the early 1970s, he had stopped running and said that his weight had ballooned up to 350 pounds, he smoked up to four packs of cigarettes a day and drank a fifth of Scotch. In 1980 he traveled to Tehran to attempt to negotiate the release of American hostages and he started a public hunger strike there. He ended up weighing less than 100 pounds by the time he returned to the United States. One article claimed that in 1981, he entered Dillard University's Flint-Goodridge Hospital and lived on just a gallon of water per day and prayer for 70 days. Other articles said that he fasted for 70 days at a hospital in New Orleans, and walked and jogged 100 miles between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. He was now a fit, thin, non-smoking, non-drinking vegetarian and marathon runner and spent the rest of his life actively informing the public about the benefits of a healthful lifestyle and the potential harm of excess food, alcohol, caffeine, drugs, obesity and lack of exercise. His recommendation that the most healthful diet is one based on fruits and vegetables is now supported by recent research.
Health Food Products
In 1984 he founded Health Enterprises, Inc., a company that distributed weight-loss products including the Bahamian diet, and his own line of nutritional supplements. He says that he became a vegetarian which, when done properly, has good scientific support for health benefits. He created his "4X Fasting Formula," which included enemas. I do not believe that either long-term total fasting or enemas are safe for treatment of obesity. On the other hand, short-term modified fasting programs are gaining increasing support from the medical community; see Intermittent Fasting. In 2014 Gregory updated his original 4X formula, and advocated the "Caribbean Diet for Optimal Health".
Profits from the sales of products developed by the Dick Gregory Health Enterprises have been given to groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the United Negro College Fund, and the Rosa Parks Foundation.
Cause of Death
In 1999, Gregory was diagnosed with lymphoma (cancer of his immune system) and he refused chemotherapy. Instead, he treated himself with herbs, vitamins, and exercise and the cancer went into remission. However, lymphomas damage your immune system to markedly increase a person's chances for infections, even many years after the original diagnosis. Shortly before his death he suffered a urinary tract infection that spread into his bloodstream.
Most likely, Gregory died of heart failure caused by extensive bleeding from a burst bifurcated thoracic aortic aneurysm, a ballooning of the main artery that carries blood from the chest to the legs. The burst artery can allow blood to seep into the lungs and belly so the person dies from shock because there is not enough blood to circulate through the body.
He also could have suffered heart failure because his heart was weakened by his extended fasting. The heart is a huge muscle that pumps blood through the body. Any damage that the heart receives can cause functioning heart muscle to be replaced with non-pumping scar tissue. Every time he fasted for an extensive period, he would lose part of his heart muscle when it was broken down to be converted into energy his body needed to keep him alive. Sometimes the heart muscle regenerates and returns to normal, but other times a part of the heart muscle is replaced by scar tissue, making the heart weaker than it was before the fast. On August 19, 2017 at age 85, his already-weakened heart was not strong enough to push blood through to his brain and he died from heart failure.
Health Lessons from Dick Gregory's Life
• You too can prolong your life by preventing obesity, stopping smoking, avoiding alcohol and eating lots of plants.
• One year after you stop smoking, you are no more likely to suffer a heart attack than someone who has never smoked. However, your increased risk for cancer remains for the rest of your life.
• Losing excess weight can help to prolong life, but extreme weight loss programs or repeatedly losing and regaining weight can shorten life by weakening your heart (Physiol Behav, Oct, 1986;38(4):459-64).
October 12, 1932 – August 19, 2017