Dick Gregory was part of the new generation of 1960s black comedians that included Bill Cosby and Nipsey Russell. In one of his early routines he said, “I walked into this restaurant in the South and this white waitress comes up to me and says, ‘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 instead.’”
While attending a family Thanksgiving in the early-60s, he began to fantasize about food. Gregory imagined aliens from another planet who viewed humans in the same way we view animals, as a food source.
I could see myself in some strange planetary oven, being basted and roasted. It would be one thing to roast white folks brown; they’d be trying to figure a way to “undone” us black folks. I even thought about myself lying on a platter all filled with stuffing! Then I’d have these visions of beings from another planet going to the butcher shop with their meat list. I could hear them placing an order: ‘Give me a half dozen Oriental knees, two Caucasian feet and twelve fresh black lips.’ And the shopkeeper comes back smiling and says, ‘These black lips are so fresh they’re still talkin.’” After that, I couldn’t eat my Thanksgiving dinner. But it started me thinking.
Gregory stopped eating meat. It wasn’t about health at first. In his memoir Callus on My Soul he wrote he “became convinced that nonviolence meant opposition to killing in any form…animals and humans suffer and die alike.”
At the time, Gregory weighed 300 pounds. He was a heavy smoker and drank a fifth of Scotch a day. Then he met naturopathic physician Dr. Alvenia Fulton who’d opened the first Chicago health food store in 1958. Fulton helped Gregory change his diet and give up his vices. She told him, “The meat you eat don’t eat meat.” He tried vegetarianism but learned that macaroni and cheese, corn bread and potatoes made him put on more pounds. He gravitated toward a fruitarian, raw-food diet eating only food from trees and plants in a natural state. Over the next few years, he lost more than half his weight.
During a trip to Ethiopia, Gregory witnessed the horrors of mass starvation. In a 1966 interview with Satya magazine he said, “It dawned on me that you can tell a starving, malnourished person because they’ve got a bloated belly and a bald head. I realized that if you come through any American airport and see businessmen with bloated bellies and bald heads, that’s malnutrition, too.”
In 1974, Gregory and Alvenia Fulton wrote the book Dick Gregory’s Natural Food Diet For Folks Who Eat: Cookin’ With Mother Nature. Gregory linked hamburgers and steak to clogged arteries and heart attacks. He wanted to improve health and life expectancy in the black community. He had street cred among African-Americans since he’d marched with Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers. He was arrested dozens of times at civil rights rallies, badly beaten in a Southern jail and shot in the leg in 1965 while trying to broker peace during the Watts Riots.
Gregory ran for mayor of Chicago in 1967 and ran for president in 1968 under the Freedom and Peace Party. He was on the ballot in eight states and received 47,133 votes. In 1968, students at the University of Tennessee invited Gregory to speak. University administrators revoked the invitation labeling Gregory an “extreme racist.” Students won a court order stipulating the university’s policy “was too broad and vague” and Gregory was allowed to perform.
Gregory went on numerous hunger strikes to protest America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. He developed his own food plan called Dick Gregory’s Bahamian Diet. He wrote that “diet is at the root of all of our problems.” He warned about the dangers of sugar consumption and eating processed foods. This is obvious today but was deemed alternative thinking in the 1960s. He taught that bad eating leads to tooth decay, high blood pressure, heart trouble, kidney problems and diabetes.
In 1984, Gregory founded a company to distribute diet products. He developed a weight loss plan with the following food menu:
Breakfast: Nothing but fruit before noon.
Lunch: Eat all raw vegetable salad or fresh fruit.
Dinner: Cook 1/2 cup of brown rice; while rice is cooking, mix the following in a blender: 1/2 an onion, 4 garlic cloves, 9 tbsp. olive oil and Braggs liquid amino acids. Mix together and pour over cooked rice.
Water: Drink 8 glasses of spring water per day.
Beverage: Squeeze juice from 8 lemons, 4 oranges, and 2 grapefruits and mix with 1 1/2 cups of pure maple syrup in a gallon jug. Fill jug with spring water.
Gregory addressed false notions about food such as the wisdom of the four basic food groups, the emphasis on dairy and the belief that FDA-approved food is good for you. He understood most people resisted changing their diet because they didn’t want to give up what they liked.
Learning to eat as Mother Nature intended does not mean giving up something… It means gaining health, youthful energy and appearance, increased mental capacity, and a joy in living you never dreamed was possible. To say nothing of the clean, fresh, natural taste of the food you will be enjoying!
Gregory tied the liberation of the black community to healthy eating and nutrition. He understood the socioeconomic obstacles to eating well and the difficulty of poor people gaining access to fresh fruits and vegetables. In Natural Diet For Folks Who Eat he wrote, “People may not always have the best resources, but they can have the best information.”
Gregory was married for more than 50 years and had 10 children. In 1999, he was diagnosed with lymphoma. He treated the cancer with herbs, diet and exercise. By 2001, the cancer went into remission. He died from heart failure in 2017 at the age of 84.