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Comedian And Civil Rights Crusader Dick Gregory Dies At 84

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The groundbreaking comedian and veteran civil rights activist Dick Gregory has died. He was 84 years old. NPR's Camila Domonoske has this remembrance.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: In the early 1960s, Dick Gregory stood out because, as he put it, he performed flat-footed. He didn't sing or dance like many other black comedians simply trying to please white audiences. He just told jokes. Maybe you've heard this bit. Gregory walks into a restaurant...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DICK GREGORY: ...And they say, we don't serve colored folks here. And I said, well, I don't eat colored folk nowhere.

UNIDENTIFIED HOST: (Laughter).

GREGORY: Bring me some pork chops.

DOMONOSKE: That was Gregory on NPR in 2003. He was always running ahead of the crowd. As a poor kid from St. Louis, his track and field victories won him a college scholarship to the mostly white Southern Illinois University. There, he discovered he could make people laugh while addressing important issues.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREGORY: Be a good audience tonight. And treat me nice because with President Kennedy's new housing bill, I might be your neighbor now.

(LAUGHTER)

DOMONOSKE: Soon Gregory was on the cover of Time magazine. "The Tonight Show With Jack Paar" gave him a call. Gregory said he'd only go if he got to sit on the couch for an interview after the routine, which black comedians didn't ordinarily get to do. Paar agreed. Gregory described that night for a documentary called "Why We Laugh."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WHY WE LAUGH")

GREGORY: They said they got so many phone calls that night, that the circuits blew out at NBC New York. And it was interesting. It was white folks who have seen a black person for the first time in a human conversation.

DOMONOSKE: Gregory's growing popularity as a comedian was paired with his early and outspoken advocacy for progressive issues. He spoke at Selma and joined civil rights sit-ins. Representative John Lewis told NPR that Gregory would make activists laugh and make the rest of America pay attention.

JOHN LEWIS: It encouraged other entertainers to stand up and to speak up, and to speak out and become involved.

DOMONOSKE: Gregory ran for mayor of Chicago and for president, using his campaigns to bring attention to social causes. He took his activism seriously, even warning his family that the struggle always came first. In 1971, he told NPR about his fast to protest the Vietnam War.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GREGORY: Every time you go to bed and that hunger runs through your body, you think about Vietnam, people that's being killed, of the things that's going on.

DOMONOSKE: Gregory also became a vegetarian, supported alternative medicine, stopped playing nightclubs that allowed cigarettes and alcohol. And he advocated for justice and civil rights until the end. After the recent violence in Charlottesville, Gregory posted on social media, quote, "we have so much work still to be done." Gregory is survived by his wife, Lillian, and their 10 children. Camila Domonoske, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.