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Comedian, US civil rights activist Dick Gregory dies aged 84

One of the first African-American comedians to perform regularly in front of white audiences, Dick Gregory appeared on all the top US TV talk shows during the 1960s and early 1970s and developed into a leading activist.

Dick Gregory's family confirmed the comedian died on Saturday night in Washington, D.C., after being hospitalized for a week. He had suffered a severe bacterial infection. 

"It is with enormous sadness that the Gregory family confirms that their father, comedic legend and civil rights activist Mr. Dick Gregory departed this earth tonight in Washington, D.C. The family appreciates the outpouring of support and love and respectfully asks for their privacy as they grieve during this very difficult time. More details will be released over the next few days," his son, Christian Gregory, wrote on social media.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson marked his passing, "He taught us how to laugh. He taught us how to fight. He taught us how to live. Dick Gregory was committed to justice. I miss him already."

Army, scholarship and comedy

Born in St.Louis, in the US state of Missouri, Dick Gregory was raised by his single mother, Lucille, and won a track scholarship to Southern Illinois University before he was drafted into the US army in 1954. He did comedy routines in  military shows and worked at a post office before he developed into a social and political activist through his stand-up comedy.

"When I started, a black comic couldn't work a white nightclub," Gregory recalled in a 2016 interview. "You could sing, you could dance, but you couldn't stand flat-footed and talk."

His first break was replacing another comic one night at the Playboy Club in Chicago in 1961. His $50 (42 euros) fee was his first big payday.

"Last time I was down South, 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."

First black performer and presidential candidate

He was invited to perform on the Tonight Show in 1962 and became the first black performer invited to sit and talk with the host on air after his performance. This led to his salary rising towards the millions.

Civil rights leader Medgar Evers invited him to speak at voter registration rallies in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962 and that set Gregory into what he called "the civil rights fight."

He wrote a serious autobiography called "Nigger" in 1964 which dealt with poverty and racism.

Gregory used his new-found fame to express his opposition to the Vietnam War and he made friends with Martin Luther King Jr. and with Malcolm X. He ran for mayor of Chicago and for the presidency in 1968.

"Had I won, first thing I would do is dig up that Rose Garden and plant me a watermelon patch," Gregory said in 2016. "And it would be no more state dinners, but watermelon lunches. We'd eat watermelon and spit the seeds on Pennsylvania Avenue."

He took a 20-year break from performing in clubs because smoking and drinking were allowed but returned to the stage where he was doing more than 200 shows and lectures each year until shortly before his death.

Gregory is survived by his wife Lillian, and their 10 children.

jm/jlw (AP, Reuters)