LOS ANGELES — Comic trailblazer and civil rights activist Dick Gregory died on Saturday at age 84.
His son Christian Gregory confirmed the news of the passing on his father's Instagram account.
"It is with enormous sadness that the Gregory family confirms that their father, comedic legend and civil rights activist Mr. Dick Gregory departed this earth tonight in Washington, DC," the post reads. "The family appreciates the outpouring of support and love and respectfully asks for their privacy as they grieve during this very difficult time."
His publicist of 50 years Steve Jaffe says that Gregory was surrounded by members of his family, including his wife of 58 years, Lillian, when he died in Washington's Sibley Memorial Hospital. Gregory was admitted a week ago for symptoms of heart failure, interrupting an East Coast comedy tour.
"He worked 300 dates a year, and was still going strong right up to the end," said Jaffe.
Gregory appeared to be recovering and on Tuesday tweeted apologies for missing an Atlanta show, promising an "excellent" prognosis and to be back on the road again "in a few weeks."
While comics such as Bill Cosby gave praise on Twitter ("He was FEARLESS," wrote Cosby), the Rev. Jesse Jackson weighed in on Gregory's social importance.
"He taught us how to laugh. He taught us how to fight. He taught us how to live," Jackson tweeted. "Dick Gregory was committed to justice. I miss him already."
Gregory was one of the first black comedians to find mainstream success with white audiences in the early 1960s. He rose from an impoverished childhood in St. Louis to become a celebrated satirist who deftly commented upon racial divisions at the dawn of the civil rights movement.
Gregory began performing comedy while in the Army, but got his first big break in 1961, with a 15-minute tryout at Hugh Hefner's Playboy Club in Chicago.
"So I pushed this white boy out of the way and ran up there and got on stage," he told CBS's 48 Hours in 2017. "Two hours later, they called Hefner. And Hefner came by and they went out of their mind. Out of their mind!"
The big comedy show in that era was The Tonight Show with Jack Paar where "white comics could sit on the couch; a black comic couldn't," Gregory said to the news program.
So when Paar's producer called a few months later with an invitation to appear on his new show, The Jack Paar Program, Gregory hung up.
Gregory explained: "And then the phone rang again. It's Jack Paar. 'Dick Gregory, this is Mr. Paar. How come you don't wanna work my show?' I said, ' 'Cause the Negroes never sit down.' 'Well, come on in, I'll let you sit down.' And that's how it happened. I came in, did my act, went to sit on the couch. It was sitting on the couch that made my salary grow in three weeks — from $250 working seven days a week to $5,000 a night."
Gregory used his growing fame to push relentlessly for civil rights, telling 60 Minutes in 1989. "I chose to be an agitator. The next time you put your underwear in the washing machine, take the agitator out, and all you're going to end up with are some dirty, wet drawers."
Gregory ran for president in 1968 as the Peace and Freedom party candidate after Alabama governor George Wallace, an avowed segregationist, entered the race. Richard Nixon won the election, but Gregory received 50,000 write-in votes.
The Rev. Al Sharpton tweeted on Saturday, "I've known Dick Gregory since I was 16-years-old. A true, committed, and consistent freedom fighter."
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