Chris Dickerson (1939- ) is an African American bodybuilder from Alabama who earned widespread recognition from the 1960s to the 1990s for his superbly muscled and symmetrical physique. In the course of winning many national and international titles, he retained the cultural values of his upbringing in the Deep South and served as a role model for American youth.
Henri Christophe "Chris" Dickerson was born on August 25, 1939, the youngest of triplets of Henry and Mahala Ashley Dickerson in Montgomery, Alabama. His father, a bellhop at the Jefferson Davis Hotel, was later head of transportation for Cleveland Trust Company, Ohio's largest bank. His mother became the first black lawyer to practice in Montgomery and the first black female attorney in Alabama. As an advocate for the underdog, she helped pave the way for the city's civil rights crusade under Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s. Dickerson's parents divorced after a year of marriage, and when Chris was 14, his mother, after divorcing Henry, moved the family to Indianapolis and placed him in a Quaker boarding school in Ohio, where he lost his Southern accent and acquired an interest in the arts. In 1959 he entered the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, where he studied acting, ballet, and voice. He started weight training to improve his singing, and in 1963 moved to Los Angeles where he became a protégé of legendary bodybuilder Bill Pearl. His earlier training in dance and theater proved to be valuable assets for physique competition.
Chris only placed third in his first contest, Mr. Long Beach 1965, but his body responded quickly to weights. He soon garnered a string of victories on both coasts, winning Mr. California in 1967, Mr. U.S.A in 1968, and Jr. Mr. America in 1970. That year, he became the first black man to win the Amateur Athletic Union Mr. America contest, and was also one of the shortest contestants, at 5' 6". His achievement made bodybuilding history and led to worldwide speaking tours, nationally broadcast television appearances, and magazine stories. This sudden fame brought occasional comparisons with Jackie Robinson, who broke major league baseball's color barrier. To Dickerson, it seemed like "the impossible dream." After winning the Professional Mr. America title in 1973 in New York and the Amateur Mr. Universe (1973) and Professional Mr. Universe (1974) titles in London, Chris pursued a career in opera for several years.
Dickerson returned to competition in 1979 to pursue larger prizes and more prestigious titles. He won the Canada Cup in 1979 and 1980 and a series of Grand Prix events, beating the world's best bodybuilders in seven out of 10 contests in 1980 and 1981. Simultaneously, his artistic background helped him win the new World Couples Championships in those years with Stacey Bentley and Lynn Conkwright. In 1982 at age 43, Dickerson became Mr. Olympia, the oldest competitor to win the sport's most prestigious title. By this time he had won more professional contests than any bodybuilder. He ended his long career in 1994 with a victory in the Master's (over 50) Olympia.
In interviews and other public comments, Dickerson has often reflected on his Alabama origins and considers himself as a southerner, whose culture implanted within him a sense of gentility and respect for others that he found less evident in the other areas of the country. Unlike more militant African American bodybuilders, he always sought cooperation rather than confrontation, and his approach eventually led him to the highest echelons of the sport. He was enshrined in the International Federation of BodyBuilding and Fitness Hall of Fame in 2000. Now retired from competition, Dickerson currently works as a security officer for Citrix Corporation in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Bartlett, Garry. "Chris Dickerson—Ageless Perfection; the Winning Goes On!" MuscleMag International (September 1982): 20-23, 32-33, 61, 64.
Dickerson, Chris. "The Impossible Dream." Strength & Health (October 1970): 42-44, 87-88.
———. "The Politics of Winning." Strength & Health (July 1971): 40-42, 74-76.
Ritter, Mark. "Chris Dickerson Interview." 2 parts. Muscle Training Illustrated (October 1983): 60–64 and (January 1984): 38–42.
John D. Fair
University of Texas
Published August 9, 2007
Last updated February 12, 2013