I remember the day my life changed forever. I was a sophomore at Amherst College; it was 1986. Our Black Student Union brought Dick Gregory—the global human rights activist and Civil Rights Movement icon—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. Though it wasn’t yet called “intersectionality,” discussing the interconnectedness of the myriad issues facing African Americans was the norm—and, for Dick Gregory, food was part of that conversation. (I talk more about the interconnectedness of food and activism here.)
Most of us in the audience 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 1958. (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. In his speech, 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.
After Gregory’s lecture, I immediately went vegetarian—and lasted for about a week. But I couldn’t get what he said out of my mind. 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, of course, years before the Internet). My mother and one of my sisters, Marya, read them, too. We all decided to go vegetarian, then we all went vegan about a year or so later.
In my first 10 years of being vegan, I had a demanding career as a museum director but spent my evenings and weekends doing vegan cooking demos and talks at churches, schools, community organizations, and health fairs throughout the Washington, D.C. area. I loved it so much that I eventually decided to change professions. I went back to school to get a master’s degree in public health nutrition and have been helping people go vegan for the past 25 years, including writing a best-selling book, inspired by Dick Gregory’s direct, funny, and biting style.
Dick Gregory continued his activism throughout the next three decades, supporting a wide range of causes, including equal rights for women, Native American rights, rights for people living with disabilities, and protesting police brutality, the prison industrial complex, and nuclear weapons.
He died on August 19th at the age of 84. As I reflect on his passing, it feels 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.
Tracye McQuirter, MPH, is a public health nutritionist, 30-year vegan, and author of By Any Greens Necessary, and Ageless Vegan, forthcoming in spring 2018.