Electronic Theses and Dissertations





Date of Award


Document Type

Dissertation (Access Restricted)

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Committee Chair

Aram Goudsouzian

Committee Member

Beverly Bond

Committee Member

Audrey McCluskey

Committee Member

Janann Sherman


This dissertation is a comparative study of the humor and activism of Dick Gregory and Bill Cosby in the civil rights era. It investigates the intersection of politics and culture, as America experienced heightened demands for racial equality and social justice in the 1960s and early 1970s. Through primary source research, including historical newspapers, comedy albums, and personal interviews, this study makes three interventions to current civil rights historiography. First, it moves comedy from the margins to the center of the movement to resist segregation and Jim Crow. African Americans used comedy as a mainstream channel to advance political issues, and white audiences communicated responses as consumers of the material. Second, it establishes Gregory and Cosby as the nation's first African American professional comedians to experience crossover success. Unlike variety entertainers, Gregory and Cosby delivered topical material to white audiences independent of influence by white club owners and booking agents. Third, this study identifies two competing strains that existed within the arena of African American comedy. One focused on the politics of race while the other focused on the politics of respectability, yet both carried the aims of the African American freedom struggle.


Data is provided by the student.

Library Comment

Dissertation or thesis originally submitted to the local University of Memphis Electronic Theses & dissertation (ETD) Repository.