Civil rights icon Fred Gray receives Presidential Medal of Freedom

For the past seven decades, longtime Alabama civil rights attorney Fred Gray has represented Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and victims of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, in which the US public health service has for decades refused to provide readily available treatment to black men. who had the disease.

Gray played a significant role in landmark Supreme Court decisions that banned separate transit and upheld organizers’ Montgomery bus boycott strategy. He protected the freedom of association guaranteed by the First Amendment by preventing Alabama officials from obtaining the list of NAACP members. He argued a racial gerrymandering case in the Supreme Court that redrew city limits to exclude 400 black people — but no white people — from the city limits of Tuskegee, Alabama, which paved the way for rule one person, one voice. which governs the redistricting after each census. And when state and local Alabama segregationist leaders sued the national press and local civil rights leaders, Gray’s legal efforts offered strong constitutional protection to critics of government officials and policy.

As a constitutional and civil rights scholar, I understand that Fred Gray had an enormous impact on American law and society. His cases are taught at law schools nationwide, and his work has led to fundamental reforms in legal doctrine and helped cement significant changes in the lives of ordinary people across the country.

I’m not the only person to recognize Gray’s enormous contributions: Martin Luther King Jr. called him “the brilliant young Negro who later became the leading advocate of the protest movement.” And on July 7, Gray received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President Joe Biden.

“Destroy all that is separated”

Remarkably, Fred Gray had no plans to become a lawyer.

The youngest of five children, whose father died just after his second birthday in December 1932, Gray aimed for ministry as one of the few professions open to black men at the time. He attended a church-sponsored high school in Nashville and traveled the country with the school president as a boy preacher.

But that ambition changed during his freshman year at what was then called Alabama State College for Negroes—now Alabama State University. Fed up with the degrading treatment on the separate Montgomery buses, Gray wrote in a memoir:

I concluded that in addition to being a pastor and trying to save souls for eternity, that in the here and now African Americans were entitled to all the rights provided by the United States Constitution. United of America. So I decided to become a lawyer.

He would go to law school, he wrote, “determined to destroy anything I could find.” And there was a lot of segregated stuff to destroy: rigid segregation of housing, education, and jobs, and almost no black people were allowed to vote anywhere in Alabama.

But realizing this ambition would be a real challenge. No law school in Alabama admitted black students. Although he almost certainly could have won a case to force his admission to the University of Alabama, he realized that the authorities would find any excuse to prevent him from graduating or being admitted. at the bar.

So Gray enrolled at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, primarily because he could work part-time while attending school. “In September 1951, with barely enough money to cover expenses, I took a separate train to Cleveland to begin law school,” he wrote in his memoir.

More importantly, he became active in the NAACP, where he became acquainted with Rosa Parks and other prominent civil rights activists. This made him the go-to advocate for the movement and set it on the path to realizing its ambition to destroy segregation.

After earning his law degree in 1954, he returned home to Montgomery, Alabama. Then he faced the daunting 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 fewer than five experienced black attorneys in the state at the time. But several white attorneys — including Clifford Durr, a leading New Deal lawyer and brother-in-law of Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black — have backed his candidacy.

But no white lawyer wanted to employ him, and there was only one other black lawyer in Montgomery. So he rented a small office from a black minister who served as his adviser and helped him refer clients.

Protest against segregation in schools, buses and lunch counters

From his base in Montgomery, Gray represented sit-in demonstrators arrested for protesting segregated lunch counters and freedom runners, the demonstrators – white and black – who took buses across the South to protest against segregation on buses and in terminals.

Gray’s legal work desegregated state universities and public schools throughout Alabama. He filed a lawsuit that allowed the march from Selma to Montgomery to continue after police brutality against the marchers on what became known as Bloody Sunday. This march led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Then Gray won some of the most important early cases testing the law’s promise that black people could no longer be disenfranchised.

Gray knew his efforts would incur the wrath of the white power structure. And this anger was not long in coming.

For example, state authorities in 1956, at the height of the bus protest, indicted him for fomenting civil rights lawsuits, which could have resulted in his law license being revoked. The charges were dismissed almost immediately because it was clear the state had no case on the merits and lacked jurisdiction to prosecute him. Later that year, the local editorial board attempted to induct him into the military. National Selective Service Director General Lewis Hershey crushed that bet.

At 91, Gray still practices law full-time — while the United States still faces enormous challenges in addressing systemic racism. It’s a point Gray hasn’t lost, even after a lifetime of success in the fight against segregation.

In an interview he gave to USA Today in 2005 to mark the opening of a four-year traveling exhibit on the Montgomery bus boycott developed by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and the Rosa Parks Museum, Gray said “My interest and concern is not so much to… commemorate what happened 50 years ago, but to see where we are now. We have to realize that racism is not going to go away on its own.

Jonathan Entin is Emeritus Professor of Law and Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Case Western Reserve University. He has known Fred Gray for almost 40 years and has written extensively about his work and career.

This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. You can find the original article here.

Originally published: July 6, 2022

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