Had record of advocacy for non-violent food nearly as long as careers in comedy and civil rights
Dick Gregory, 84, remembered by most media as “a groundbreaking comedian and civil rights activist,” but also actively advocating a vegan lifestyle for nearly two-thirds of his life, died in Washington D.C. on August 19, 2017 from a heart attack.
Knowing he was at high risk from heart disease had helped Gregory to give up meat in 1965, and to become a vegan raw foodist fructarian in 1967.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1932, at the depth of the Great Depression, Gregory escaped poverty and earned an education by running a 4:28 mile––two years before Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile on record––to win a track scholarship to Southern Illinois University.
At Southern Illinois University Gregory set school records for running the half mile and mile, but his education was interrupted for two years when in 1954 he was drafted into the U.S. Army.
Beginning to do stand-up comedy while in the Army, Gregory struggled to survive as a nightclub comic until January 1961, when Playboy magazine and nightclub chain founder Hugh Hefner caught his act at the black-owned Roberts Show Bar and hired him to do a fill-in performance before an audience of mostly white southern frozen food executives at the Chicago Playboy Club.
“Line up, boys!”
By his second joke Gregory was hitting hard at the targets he hit most often throughout his long career:
“Last time I was down South,” Gregory said, “I walked into this restaurant and this white waitress came up to me and said, ‘We don’t serve colored people here.’ I said, ‘That’s all right. I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.’
“Then these three white boys came up to me and said, “Boy, we’re giving you fair warning. Anything you do to that chicken, we’re gonna do to you.’ So I put down my knife and fork. I picked up that chicken and I kissed it. Then I said, ‘Line up, boys!’”
“The civil rights fight”
Gregory enjoyed his newfound edgy stardom for just a little over a year before, as Dennis McClellan of the Los Angeles Times recalled, “An invitation from civil rights leader Medgar Evers to speak at voter registration rallies in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962 launched Gregory into what he called ‘the civil rights fight.’ He was frequently arrested for his activities, and once spent five days in jail in Birmingham, Alabama after joining demonstrators in 1963 at the request of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.”
Gregory’s wife Lillian, nine months pregnant at the time, was kicked in the stomach and also arrested, but gave birth successfully. Married in 1959, the Gregory family raised 10 surviving children. An eleventh child died in infancy. Lillian Gregory, who also survives her husband, was often left to look after the children while Dick Gregory was touring and speaking, but was in the midst of civil rights activism often enough herself to be often praised by black media as a movement leader in her own right.
“Brutality of carnivorousness”
Meanwhile, McClellan wrote, “Gregory, who was shot in the leg while trying to help defuse the Watts riots in 1965, made a failed run for mayor of Chicago as a write-in candidate in 1967. A year later, he ran for president as a write-in candidate for the Freedom and Peace Party, a splinter group of the Peace and Freedom Party,” itself a splinter party, which had formed in opposition to the Vietnam War.
During that time frame, recounted Jennifer Jensen Wallach in “Black Nationalism & the Post-1964 Culinary Turn,” published in 2014 by the journal Southern Studies, Gregory recognized “the brutality of carnivorousness and questioned his relationship to American consumer capitalism.
“Participation in the civil rights movement extinguished Gregory’s appetite for animal flesh. He began to recognize a link between violence against humans and violence against nonhuman animals, noting that ‘Animals and humans suffer and die alike.’
“The lowliness of killing something”
“From 1965 onward,” Wallach said, Gregory “‘refused to accept that I had to stoop to the lowliness of killing something to get my dinner.’ He abandoned a vegetarian diet after his weight jumped from 167 pounds as a carnivore to 288 pounds as a vegetarian who would ‘go into a soul food restaurant and wipe out the yams, greens, black-eyed peas, macaroni and cheese, corn bread, squash, and dressing,’” and instead “evolved toward a fruitarian, raw-foods diet, eating ‘only fruit, direct from plants and trees, in a natural state, fully cooked by Mother Nature’s outdoor oven,’ rejecting industrially processed foods.”
The Gregory family “raised their ten children following these dietary guidelines,” Wallach reported. “Although Gregory’s strict fruitarianism inspired few wholesale converts, his commitment to maintaining the physical health of the black community was widespread in nationalist circles in the late 1960s and early 1970s.”
“Bloated bellies & bald heads”
Assessed Gregory himself, “I waited at the counter of a white restaurant for eleven years. When they finally integrated, they didn’t have what I wanted. I went to Ethiopia, and it dawned on me that you can tell a starving, malnourished person because they’ve got a bloated belly and a bald head. And I realized that if you come through any American airport and see businessmen running through with bloated bellies and bald heads, that’s malnutrition, too.”
Gregory often attributed his decision to give up meat to the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. about nonviolence, which were in turn based on the teachings of Indian independence struggle leader Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948), a lifelong vegetarian and advocate of vegetarianism.
But, Gregory told the late vegetarian historian Rynn Berry in a 1996 interview published by Satya magazine, “When I became vegetarian, I didn’t know that Gandhi was a vegetarian. Ninety-nine percent of people know that Gandhi fasted, but they don’t know he was a vegetarian. I knew that he prayed and he fasted, but I didn’t know he was a vegetarian until I got into it. When I got through checking out Gandhi, I realized that Gandhi never fasted over 13 days in his life. Gandhi influenced me through Dr. Martin Luther King, and the idea of peaceful resistance.”
“Don’t be wearing no leather shoes”
While Gregory urged others of African descent to give up meat, emphasizing the health benefits of vegetarianism and veganism, his most immediate influence may have been among young Caucasian activists.
Remembered longtime vegan author and columnist Victoria Moran, who gave up meat at age 18, in 1968, in a 2014 interview conducted by fellow vegan advocate Char Nolan, “Dick Gregory inspired me as someone who was out in the world, a famous entertainer, who ate a simple vegan diet and did a lot of fasting, both for health reasons and political reasons, just as his mentor Mohandas Gandhi had. I fasted for a week with Gregory and 125 other people in the basement of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta,” in 1984, “to draw attention to world hunger. On the final day we did a march.
“I’ll never forget Gregory saying, ‘Don’t be wearing no leather shoes. The reporters are gonna first look at your shoes.’ That spoke to me of ethical consistency,” Moran said, “and I’ve carried that with me to this day.”
Dexter Scott King
Eventually Gregory did begin to help change how black Americans eat, including with a coast-to-coast Bicentennial Run in 1976, fueled only by fruit juice and mineral supplements.
“I was emerging as a top voice for vegetarianism, but I didn’t push the word,” Gregory recalled decades later. “It scared people then. Instead, I promoted health and nutrition, and eating more fruits and vegetables.”
Dexter Scott King, second son of Martin Luther King Jr., born in 1961, turned vegetarian after a 1987 visit to a health spa Gregory founded in the Bahamas. Through his influence, his mother Coretta Scott King (1927-2006 became vegan for the last 12 years of her life, as did several of her friends and other family members.
Fried chicken beat the former vegan champ
Trained on a vegetarian diet personally prescribed by Gregory, boxer Riddick Bowe cut his weight from 272 pounds to 235, then beat Evander Holyfield out of the world heavyweight boxing championship in November 1992, but celebrated with a meal of fried chicken. Bowe held the title for only a year, as inability to keep his weight down and maintain training discipline took a toll.
Traci Thomas, who founded the Black Vegetarian Society of Georgia in 2006, the first of an eventual national and even international string of Black Vegetarian Societies, credits Gregory with inspiring her to give up meat in 1994.
“By Any Greens Necessary”
Recalled vegan health educator Tracye McQuirter, who earned a masters degree in public health nutrition from New York University before writing By Any Greens Necessary: A Revolutionary Guide for Black Women Who Want to Eat Great, Get Healthy, Lose Weight, and Look Phat (2010), “During my sophomore year at Amherst College, our Black Student Union brought Dick Gregory to campus to talk about the economic, political, and social state of African Americans. But instead, he flipped the script and talked about the plate of black America.
“What I remember most,” McQuirter said, “was that he graphically traced the path of a hamburger from a cow on a factory farm, to a slaughterhouse, to a fast food place, to a clogged artery, to a heart attack.
“State of shock”
“At the end of the lecture, I sat there in a state of shock, especially since his lecture was right before lunch. Well, that day I immediately gave up hamburgers and hot dogs. But that only lasted a few days. I decided that Dick Gregory was crazy and nobody in their right mind gives up meat.
“But even though I went back to eating hamburgers and hot dogs, there was something in the back of my mind,” McQuirter acknowledged, “that made me wonder if what Dick Gregory was saying was true.
“Plus, I gained 25 pounds my freshman year in college from eating all the unhealthy food I wanted because I was away from home for the first time. So at the rate I was going, I was probably well on my way to that eventual heart attack that Dick Gregory talked about.
“A few months after the lecture, I went home for the summer, back to Washington, D.C., and I read everything I could about whether eating meat was unhealthy. And my mother and middle sister read the same books, too. We discovered that what Dick Gregory was saying was true. So by the end of the summer, we all decided to become vegetarians.”
Gregory & PETA
While Gregory often spoke about the animal suffering that goes into meat production, he tended to avoid direct associations with animal advocacy campaigns and organizations. He made some exceptions on behalf of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, speaking out against the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1998-1999, and narrating a video criticizing KFC treatment of chickens in 2009.
In between, however, Gregory may have been embarrassed by a PETA touring exhibit likening animal use for human purposes to slavery.
Debuting in Boston on August 2, 2005, the exhibit was widely denounced as insensitive to black people by other civil rights leaders, most of whom were careful to distinguish their criticism of the exhibit itself from general endorsement of the intentions behind it.
“Animals & humans suffer & die alike”
“Inspired by the words of civil rights leader Dick Gregory, who said, ‘Animals and humans suffer and die alike. … the same pain, the same spilling of blood, the same stench of death, the same arrogant, cruel, and brutal taking of life,’ the massive walk-through exhibit juxtaposes images of once-accepted acts of cruelty to humans with images of present-day cruelty to animals,” wrote PETA spokesperson Dawn Carr in the media release accompanying the unveiling at the Boston Common.
Explained Carr, “The display includes images of slaves who were chained, beaten, branded, and forcibly separated from their families; Native Americans who were evicted from their ancestral lands; women who fought for the right not to be treated as their husbands’ property; and children forced to work long hours in dangerous and unhealthy conditions. Today, animals are chained and beaten to make them perform in circuses; poisoned and cut open in laboratories; and bludgeoned, drowned, and electrocuted for their skins. Mothers and their offspring are separated, auctioned off, mutilated, and killed for their flesh.”
Elaborated Adrian Margaret Brune for the Hartford Courant, “One panel features a 1930s photograph of a lynching of a black man in Indiana offset by an Angus cow hanging by her feet at a slaughterhouse. Next to it, another installment drops the mouths of onlookers as their eyes move from a picture of a burning black corpse from a 1919 race riot to the corresponding image of a rooster set on fire,” as part of an attempt to eradicate a deadly avian flu variant in Southeast Asia.
“One of the most provocative images,” Brune found, was “that of a chained black human’s foot opposite the thick, powerful – and equally shackled – limb of a circus elephant.”
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People protested against the PETA display when it was set up in New Haven, Connecticut, a few days after the Boston Common presentation.
“Animal rights is a good cause, but get it out there straight up. Do not exploit us to get your issue out there,” Connecticut NAACP president Scot X. Esdiale told Brune. “We were used like animals to build this country for free; the comparison of black rights with animal rights is not a good one.”
Gregory, fellow black comedian Richard Pryor, and evangelical minister and political commentator Al Sharpton had prominently endorsed PETA campaigns earlier in the year, but prominent black Americans including Gregory tended to keep a safe distance from PETA in specific and animal advocacy campaigns generally for several years thereafter.
Younger black activists had different response
But, while the PETA exhibit offended many older black Americans, it had the effect that PETA and Gregory had hoped it would on those too young to personally remember the issues and struggles of a generation earlier.
Recalled A. Breeze Harper, co-editor with Pattrice Jones of the 2009 anthology Sistah Vegan: Black Women Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society, “During one evening in the summer of 2005, I trudged through the latest discussion boards on BlackPlanet.com and found a discussion forum that centered” on the PETA traveling exhibit and the NAACP opposition to it.
Earlier, Harper wrote, “What truly moved me into practicing veganism was reading about Dick Gregory and seeing the connections he made to institutionalized racism/classism/sexism, black liberation, the black community’s ‘health crisis,’ and dietary beliefs/practices.”
Synthesizing Gregory’s teachings with her conflicted feelings about the PETA exhibit, Harper detailed in the first chapter of Sistah Vegan, led her to “find black-identified females who practice veganism, as well as support anti-speciesism and/or see the connections speciesism has to all the ‘-isms,’” leading to the assembly of Sistah Vegan to help take message forward to the next generation.