Over the past seven decades, Alabama’s longtime civil rights attorney, Fred Gray, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King jr. and represent the victims of the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment, in which the U.S. public health service refused for decades to provide readily available treatment to black men who had the disease.
Gray played a key role in Supreme Court landmark rulings banning segregated public transportation and reaffirming the strategy of the Montgomery bus boycott organizers. He protected the freedom of association guaranteed by the First Amendment by preventing Alabama officials from accessing the NAACP membership list. He has argued in the Supreme Court a case of racial racism that redefines city boundaries to exclude 400 Blacks – but no whites – from the city limits of Tuskegee, Alabama, which raises the bar for the one-person, one-vote rule. which controls redistribution after each census. And when state and local segregation leaders in Alabama sued the national press and local civil rights leaders, Gray’s legal efforts provided strong constitutional protection to critics of public officials and government policies.
As a scholar of constitutional law and civil rights, I understand that Fred Gray has had an enormous impact on American law and society. His affairs are taught in every law school in the country, and his work has led to fundamental reforms in jurisprudence and helped to confirm important changes in the lives of ordinary people across the country.
I’m not the only person acknowledging Gray’s enormous contributions: Martin Luther King jr. called him “the brilliant young negro who later became the main advocate for the protest movement”. And on July 7, Gray will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the country, from President Joe Biden.
“Destroy all that is set apart”
Remarkably, Fred Gray did not plan to become a lawyer.
The youngest of five children, whose father died just after his second birthday in December 1932, he aimed at ministry as one of the few occupations open to Black men at the time. He attended a church-sponsored high school in Nashville and traveled the country as a boys’ preacher with the school president.
But that ambition changed during his junior year at what was then called Alabama State College for Negroes – now Alabama State University. Thirsty for degrading treatment on Montgomery’s segregated buses, Gray wrote in a memoir: “I have come to the conclusion that in addition to being a pastor and trying to save souls forever, that African Americans in the here and now “was entitled to all the rights provided by the Constitution of the United States of America, so I decided to become a lawyer.”
He would go to law school, he wrote, “determined to destroy everything I could find that was isolated.” And there were many segregated things to destroy: rigid segregation of housing, education, and employment, and almost no black people were allowed to vote anywhere in Alabama.
But fulfilling this ambition would be a real challenge. No law school in Alabama allowed black students. Although he could almost certainly win a lawsuit to enforce his admission to the University of Alabama, he realized that the authorities would find an excuse to prevent him from graduating or being admitted to the bar.
Gray therefore enrolled at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, mainly because he could work part-time while in school. “In September of 1951, with barely enough money to cover expenses, I took a segregated train to Cleveland to begin law school,” he wrote in his memoir.
After obtaining his law degree in 1954, he returned home to Montgomery. Then he faced the challenging task of obtaining character references from five experienced local attorneys before he could sit for the Alabama Bar Exam. The problem was that there were then less than five experienced Black lawyers in the state. But several white lawyers – most notably Clifford Durr, a leading New Deal lawyer and brother-in-law of Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black – supported his application.
But no white lawyer would hire him, and there was only one other Black lawyer in Montgomery. So he rented an office from a Black pastor who served as an adviser and helped refer clients to him.
More importantly, he became active in the NAACP, where he got to know Rosa Parks and other leading civil rights activists. This made him the lawyer for the movement and put him on the path to realizing his ambition to destroy segregation.
Demonstration of segregation of lunch counters to schools
From his base in Montgomery, Gray represented sit-in protesters arrested for protesting against segregated lunch counters, and freedom riders, the protesters – white and black – who rode buses across the South to protest segregation on buses and in terminals.
Gray’s legal work has desegregated state universities and public schools throughout Alabama. He filed the lawsuit that allowed the Selma-to-Montgomery march to continue after the police violence against marchers on what became known as Bloody Sunday. This march led to the adoption of the Voting Rights Act. Then Gray won some of the most important early cases that tested the law’s promise that Black people could no longer be deprived.
Gray knew that his efforts would provoke the wrath of the white power structure. And that anger did not last long.
For example, state authorities in 1956, at the height of the bus protest, charged him with inciting civil rights litigation, which could lead to his legal license being revoked. The charges were dismissed almost immediately because it was clear that the state had no case on the merits and had no jurisdiction to prosecute him. Later that year, the local draft council tried to include him in the military. The national director of selective service, Genl. Lewis Hershey, downed this hobby.
At the age of 91, Gray continues to practice law full-time – while the US still faces enormous challenges in tackling systemic racism. This is a point that Gray has not lost, even after a lifetime of success in the fight against segregation.
In an interview with USA Today in 2005 to celebrate the opening of a Smithsonian exhibition on the Montgomery bus boycott, Gray said: “My interest and concern is not so much to … commemorate what “50 years ago, but to see where we are now, we must realize that racism is not going to go away on its own.”