Like so many of you, I was truly saddened to hear about Dick Gregory's passing on Saturday.
Much is being written about him as a global human rights activist, Civil Rights Movement icon, comedic genius, presidential candidate, health pioneer, and so much more. He was truly ahead of his time, and he remained a committed and outspoken activist into his final years.
And larger-than-life as he was, his influence on me and so many others was deeply personal. If you know my vegan transition story--one that I've been sharing for the past 30 years--then you know that Dick Gregory is the reason I became a vegan. He changed the course of my life.
It happened in 1986, during my sophomore year at Amherst College. Our Black Student Union brought Dick Gregory to campus to talk about the state of black America, but instead, he decided to talk about the plate of black America. About the health, politics, economics, and culture of what we ate and why we should become vegetarians. (They call it intersectionality today.)
At the time, many of us didn't know that Gregory had become a vegetarian in 1965 based on the philosophy of nonviolence practiced during the Civil Rights Movement, which he extended to the treatment of animals.
In his memoir, Callus on My Soul, Gregory wrote:
“I had been a participant in all of the ‘major’ and most of the ‘minor’ civil rights demonstrations of the early sixties. Under the leadership of Dr. King, I became convinced that nonviolence meant opposition to killing in any form. I felt the commandment ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ applied to human beings not only in their dealings with each other—war, lynching, assassination, murder and the like—but in their practice of killing animals for food and sport. Animals and humans suffer and die alike. Violence causes the same pain, the same spilling of blood, the same stench of death, the same arrogant, cruel, and brutal taking of life.”
His focus on vegetarianism didn't include health at first. He professed that he weighed 300 pounds, and smoked, drank, and ate excessively. But all that changed in 1967, when he met renowned naturopathic physician Dr. Alvenia Fulton, who had opened the first health food store and vegetarian cafe on the south side of Chicago in the 1950s. (You can listen to a rare recorded interview with Dr. Fulton here.) Dr. Fulton helped Gregory complete his first fast and become a healthy vegetarian, which changed his life.
Together, they also wrote Dick Gregory's Natural Diet for Folks Who Eat: Cookin' with Mother Nature, in 1974, which became an instant classic.
So by the time Gregory came to speak on our campus in 1986, he had been a vegetarian for nearly 20 years and had started a plant-based empire, Dick Gregory's Bahamian Diet Drink. As I said, many of us didn't know that at the time, so his talk on the plate of black America caught us off guard. And what really grabbed me was that he traced the path of a hamburger from a cow on a factory farm, to the slaughterhouse, to a hamburger, to a clogged artery, to a heart attack. And it completely rocked my world.
I was completely uninterested in healthy food before that lecture (despite my mother's best efforts when I was growing up). And I had gained 25 pounds during my first year. But I was going through a paradigm shift at the time, as a result of courses I was taking on racism, sexism, classism, and more. So I was open to questioning the way society dictated I should eat, as well.
So after Gregory's lecture, I immediately went vegetarian--but that only lasted for about a week. But I couldn't get what he said out of my mind. So when I went home for the summer a few months later, I got all the books from the library about vegetarianism I could find (this was about 8 years before the Internet). And my mother and one of my sisters, Marya, read them, too. And we all decided to go vegetarian first, then vegan about a year or so later.
That ultimately led me to change my career path, get a master's degree in public health nutrition, write a best-selling book (which I intentionally wrote in Dick Gregory's same direct, funny, and biting style), and to help people go vegan for the past 25 years. So he quite literally changed my life and, in turn, helped me do the same for others. I'm eternally grateful and so honored that I've had the chance to thank him more than once.
So, as I reflect on his passing, it feels kind of surreal. Like the end of an era. And yet as I think about his life, I also feel renewed. I realize that he was around my age now, in his 50s, when he came to my campus and spoke. And that makes me feel more committed to continue helping people go vegan and love it, so they can live healthier, happier lives.
And just as his work ranged from human rights to eating right (as his daughter Ayanna Gregory sings in this beautiful tribute), I also feel recommitted to my other passions and purposes alongside veganism, knowing that they're all interwoven.
So, Dick Gregory, I thank you. I honor you, and I'm forever indebted to you. Rest in peace and power with the ancestors. Your legacy lives on.
Have a wonderful week!