What can be said about Dick Gregory that has not already been said? The 84 year-old civil rights activist, comedian, author and health guru who broke color barriers and died last weekend following a bacterial infection, was so many things rolled into one.
His incredible and often humorous insight into the world at large often made folks pause and think about their lives and conditions. As is many times the case when people pass on, Gregory’s words of wisdom will be recalled by his followers in the weeks and years to come.
In the early 60s, he made it big as the first black stand-up comic to sit with the host of a TV talk show. When asked to appear on Jack Paar, Gregory agreed on one condition—that he be allowed to join Paar in a conversation after his performance. Until then, black comedians were only allowed to perform and then leave. No one just stood up and told jokes until Gregory came along. Even the greats like Sammy Davis, Jr. had to sing and dance below they could speak directly to the audience.
While Gregory was known worldwide for his activism and comedy, I came to know him as a walking encyclopedia on health. I met him first in Leimert Parrk, where he gave a talk about health and the importance of purifying your blood. Years later, the man who once smoked multiple packs of cigarettes daily crossed my path again—this time as a true believer in Global Cardio Care, a medical facility in Inglewood with a high success rate of treating people with high blood pressure and heart conditions.
At the facility, patients are strapped to a bed that vibrates and circulates blood to the heart.
Gregory was so impressed, that he came to the center immediately after hearing about it and reported that after one treatment, his pressure dropped to 98 over 60.
It was delightful, getting to know Gregory during our interview and picking up on his various bits of wisdom here and there. “The lymphatic system is like the garbage man that comes in your neighborhood to take out the trash,” Gregory said. “It moves all the poison out of the bloodstream, but it doesn’t have a pump. Before we had cars and trains, walking was the thing that turned the pump (heart). Now, we don’t get any fitness, and there’s nowhere for the lymph system to empty the trash. It’s as if we use the toilet and don’t flush. When I’m on the machine it’s almost the equivalent of walking five miles.”
Injecting humor into the conversation, Gregory said he never saw such a “newfangled” machine until he met Global Cardio Care owner Sara Salouti. “The last time I saw a black person strapped like that was on their way to the electric chair for a murder they say they didn’t commit!”
Another funny moment occurred when Gregory talked about how conveniences of the modern world are not always aligned with what’s good for us health wise. In the old days, he said, people woke up and went to bed by the rising and setting of the sun. Now, electricity allows folks to stay up way beyond the time they should be sleeping. “People are up folding socks at 10 o’clock at night,” he said. I laughed out loud because I had a pile of laundry scattered over my bed at that very moment, as I interviewed him over the phone. I wonder how he knew…
Whether talking about heart disease or racism, Gregory never left his comic roots. He recalled in a 2003 interview his experience trying to integrate a restaurant in Mississippi during the Civil Rights Era:
"We tried to integrate a restaurant, and they said, `We don't serve colored folk here,' and I said, `Well, I don't eat colored folk nowhere. Bring me some pork chops.' And then Ku Klux Klan come in, and the woman say, `We don't have no pork chops,' so I say, `Well, bring me a whole fried chicken.' And then the Klan walked up to me when they put that whole fried chicken in front of me, and they say, `Whatever you do to that chicken, boy, we're going to do to you.' So I opened up its legs and kissed it in the rump and (said) `Be my guest.' "