Bob Fitch photography archive, © Stanford University Libraries
As an active participant in the civil rights movement, comedian Dick Gregory became a close ally of Martin Luther King. In a 14 May 1965 letter to Gregory, King extolled his contributions to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and civil rights, stating that he had been “so dedicated and significant” that the movement would “always remain indebted to [him].”
Born Richard Claxton Gregory on 12 October 1932, in St. Louis, Missouri, Gregory was one of six siblings raised alone by his mother. He attended Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, winning the school’s Outstanding Athlete Award in 1953. After serving in the Army, where he performed as a comedian in Special Service Shows, Gregory began a career in standup comedy in the late 1950s.
Gregory used his celebrity to bring attention to civil rights causes, participating in picket lines and voter registration efforts and performing at rallies and fundraisers. On 18 June 1961, he acted as the master of ceremonies at a freedom rally in Los Angeles, where King was the featured speaker. Gregory soon became a valuable resource for SCLC, joining King in numerous fundraising events. When Wyatt Tee Walker sent Gregory an advance copy of King’s 1964 book Why We Can’t Wait, he recognized him as one of “a few people around this nation who have been especially close to the work of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and for whom Dr. King has an especial affection” (Walker, 4 May 1964). Gregory also toured to raise funds for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s 1964 Freedom Summer and participated in a 1965 freedom rally on the last night of the Selma to Montgomery March.
Gregory continued his activism after King’s assassination, protesting the Vietnam War and running for U.S. president on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket in 1968. During the 1970s and 1980s, he turned his attention to issues of nutritional health and spiritual growth. Gregory was in the vanguard of performers who used their talents to promote civil rights and King’s methods of nonviolence.