Dick Gregory was supposed to perform in Kansas City in just over two weeks.
Instead, Improv Comedy Club at 7:30 p.m. on September 7, will host a night of tribute to the famed African American comedian and dedicated human rights activist.
Gregory, a native of St. Louis, died on Saturday. He was 84. A week prior to his death, Gregory had been hospitalized in Washington, D. C. with a bacterial infection. He later died at the hospital. The cause of his death was heart failure.
“It was as if he just completely wore himself out,” said his younger brother Ron Gregory who spoke with The Star by phone on Monday.
“He would always put himself out there. He never stopped. He dedicated his life to championing movements that would improve the lives of other people.”
Alvin Brooks, a longtime Kansas City community activist, remembers the first time he met Gregory. It was 1964.
Gregory came to help members of the Kansas City branch of the Congress of Racial Equality or CORE a civil rights group that at the time was picketing area grocery stores for refusing to hire black clerks and butchers.
“He was a national figure at the time and he came to help us,” Brooks said. “One thing about Dick Gregory, he called it like it was not like you thought it was. Dick Gregory was controversial because he told the truth,” Brooks said.
“He went around the country trying to ignite the consciousness of people in general.”
Brooks, who is 85, said he came to know Gregory pretty well.
“We would joke about which one of us was the baby, you know who was older than who,” Brooks said.
Gregory came to Kansas City often from the 1960’s to as late as last summer when he entertained a packed house at the comedy club in the Zona Rosa shopping area.
Amanda Lukens, a spokeswoman for the comedy club, was there that night and remembers that, unlike any other performer had done, Gregory walked into the performance room and “went around to each and every table and shook every single person’s hand. He was out mingling with the people. That’s not the norm. That’s special.”
But for Gregory there was no other way. “He was about doing for the people,” his brother said.
Gregory started his activism young. He grew up the second of six children who were raised by their mother in an inner city black neighborhood in St. Louis.
In the late 1940s, when he was a freshman at Sumner High School in St. Louis, he was breaking records in track and field but at the time black students didn’t run in the Missouri track and field championships or the state cross country championships, Ron Gregory recalled.
“Dick went and talked to a state representative at the time about it. And as a result he was able to run.” Gregory, who attended Southern Illinois University on a track scholarship, ended up being the first African American student to win the mile at the Missouri high school state track and field competition and the first to win cross country at the state meet.
His senior year of high school he led students on a march to the St. Louis Board of Education to protest overcrowding in the segregated black schools.
Many years later, in 1976, Gregory ran about 50 miles a day from California to New York to bring attention to world hunger.
It was in college that he found out he could make people laugh and then used his comedy as a tool to bring the plight of black Americans and other marginalized people to the forefront.
“He would say that if someone was demonstrating for justice he was going to be out there,” Ron Gregory said. “He felt that civil rights was not a spectator’s sport and that everyone should be involved.”
And he was passionate about it, said U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver. He and Gregory sat on the national board for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
The last time they saw one another was two days after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Mo. “We arrived at the burnrfout QuikTrip at the same time,” Cleaver said.
“I knew him for more than 35 years,” Cleaver said. “He was one of the strongest board members for the SCLC national board. Dick Gregory along with others was among those people who poured a lot of badly needed funding into the SCLC for years. He put his money were his mouth was.”
Cleaver said he felt that Gregory, who in the 1980s developed the Bahamian diet formula and preached healthy living, gave up millions in potential entertainment dollars to remain a pivotal figure in the civil rights movement.
“He spoke out on issues that frankly made people on TV nervous,” Cleaver said. “He could start out telling you jokes and then just flip the switch and all of a sudden he’s talking about some kind of injustice.”
“He was an amazing man, make no mistake about that,” Cleaver said. “He was a crazy human, but there was a side that brought joy, laughter and tears to people with his commitment to social justice.”
And Gregory was in the thick of the movement along with other nationally recognized civil rights leaders. He was an friend and an adviser of activists Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr.
“I think Dick Gregory was the kind of voice and leader who gave the movement a kind of tenacity and a kind of courage that was needed...” said Vernon Howard, senior pastor at St. Mark’s Church and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Kansas City.
“He was able to connect with any facet of the African American struggle no matter what path you came to it on,” Howard said. “It didn’t matter if it was through religion or politics or education. I have to say that in losing Dick Gregory we lost a voice, someone who gave us courage to stand up and isn’t that important during these times when venomous hate is being spewed.”
The Sept. 7 tribute show for Gregory, hosted by his nephew, Mark Gregory, will be at 7:30 p.m. The doors will open at 6:15 p.m. Tickets are $15.