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Dick Gregory, RIP

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The great Dick Gregory, one of the most amazing living Americans, has died. Gregory was both a pioneering comedian who influenced people such as Richard Pryor and someone who was at the front lines of civil rights and racial justice for decades.

More than a comedian, Mr. Gregory was driven by an unwavering commitment to front-line activism. He marched in Selma, Ala., was jailed in Birmingham, Ala., was shot in the leg during the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles, and had counted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X — all slain campaigning for their cause — among his confidants. At one protest, Mr. Gregory said, his pregnant wife was kicked in the stomach by a white sheriff.

Mr. Gregory’s entertainment career increasingly took a back seat to his activism.

Protesting de facto school segregation, Mr. Gregory led a march in 1965 from Chicago’s City Hall to the home of Mayor Richard J. Daley. He and several dozen peaceful protesters were arrested for disorderly conduct — they had refused to obey police orders to disperse, and hundreds of hecklers began pelting them with rocks and eggs.

In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed those convictions, saying there was no evidence they were responsible for the violence.

Amid that legal case, Mr. Gregory ran for mayor against Daley in 1967 and for U.S. president in 1968 as a write-in candidate with the left-wing Freedom and Peace Party, campaigning against what he saw as rampant political corruption in the two major parties.

Mr. Gregory said he was appalled that the Democratic Party would host its national convention that year in Chicago, a city where black demonstrators were regularly brutalized by the police. The convention drew a large contingent of white anti-Vietnam protesters, and the outbreak of violence that ensued prompted Mr. Gregory to take mordant glee in the melee.

“I was at home watching it on TV, and I fell on the floor and laughed,” he told GQ magazine in 2008. “My wife said, ‘What’s funny?’ And I said, ‘The whole world is gonna change. White folks are gonna see white folks beating white folks.’ ”

I’ve long felt that Gregory was never remembered publicly as the absolutely critical figure he was during the 1960s. Given that he was still alive, I was always surprised there was not more of a conscious attempt to raise his standing as one of the last living civil rights movement heroes. It’s not as if he disappeared. He was still giving talks until the end and had to postpone an upcoming Atlanta gig because of his illness that did him in. On the other hand, his embrace of conspiracy theories perhaps made him a bit of a tough sell in the present.

Anyway, Gregory is a great loss. Not too many of the leaders from the 1960s era civil rights movement left, outside of the aging SNCC core.

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