Fred Gray: A Pioneer in Civil Rights Defense 1/23/18 01/23/18 11:44:06 AM
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Longtime civil rights attorney Rev. Fred Gray brings history to life as he recounts his experiences in the deep south at the beginning of the civil rights movement at the 2018 Lane Lecture: “Civil Rights Then and Now: A Conversation with the Rev. Fred Gray.”
Fred Gray: A Pioneer in Civil Rights Defense
By Lorraine Boyd
The Daily Record
We all know about the woman who refused to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Ala. We all know about the struggles of Dr. Martin Luther King to bring about racial equality. Many of us probably don’t know the full story of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study.
One person who knows firsthand all of these important issues is Rev. Fred Gray. He stood side by side with Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin, Dr. King and the victims of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. The young lawyer defended them in court, often all the way to the Supreme Court.
The 87-year-old attorney belied his age, admitting only to a slight hearing problem, as he fielded questions about his civil rights activism at the 2018 Lane Lecture at Creighton University on – fittingly enough – January 15, the day dedicated to honoring Dr. King.
The lecture was a joint venture of Creighton’s School of Law, the Omaha Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance and the Schlegel Center for Service and Justice. It was made possible by a grant from the Winthrop and Frances Lane Foundation of Omaha. Winthrop Lane was born in Omaha in 1889 and attended Harvard Law School. He was a partner in the firm of Rose, Wells, Martin and Lane, a predecessor to the present Baird Holm law firm in Omaha.
The lecture took an unusual form: that of a discussion forum, with Greg Rhodes and Kai Wahrmann-Harry asking Gray questions.
He prefaced nearly every answer, in his precise and robust voice, with “Let me give you a little history first…” And that “little history” was a fascinating, first-hand look at some of the most highly charged times of the 20th Century.
Gray is a Montgomery, Ala., native who earned his law degree at Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Ohio in 1954, then returned to Alabama to practice law as a solo practitioner.
Barely out of law school, Gray defended Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks on disorderly conduct charges after their 1955 refusals to move to the back of buses during the Montgomery Bus Boycott protesting segregated transportation in the Alabama capital.
He told the audience that since he was so inexperienced, he often sought help from more experienced lawyers. The practice served him well and he encouraged the young lawyers there to follow his example.
He litigated several major civil rights cases in Alabama, including some that reached the United States Supreme Court for rulings. During the Civil Rights Movement, Gray came to prominence working with Martin Luther King Jr. and E.D. Nixon, among others.
He successfully defended Dr. King from charges of tax evasion in 1960, winning an acquittal from an all-white jury.
Advice from MomThe reason for his success may well reside in some early advice. He told the audience that his mother, who raised him and his four siblings by herself after his father died, “told us we could be anything we wanted to be if we did three things: One, keep Christ first in your life; two, stay in school and get a good education; and three, stay out of trouble.”
When asked about the challenges of growing up in a racially segregated South, he said, “White folks did what they wanted to do and black folks did what they had to do. We were living in a completely segregated time. Added to that, there were state statutes and city ordinances which required the two races to be separated.”
GerrymanderingTo illustrate the situation, Gray recalled the case he argued in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1960, a racial gerrymandering case affecting his adopted hometown of Tuskegee, Ala., when he was 29 years old.
He explained that while the historic city was about 80 percent black, they couldn’t get the right to vote. White people were controlling the political process and would not permit them to vote. There were enough of them to influence the outcome of the vote.
A map of boundaries was redrawn by the State Legislature, which cut off black participation in their city elections. “The city used to be a square,” Gray said. “Now it was what I called a 28-side sea dragon. It excluded all the blacks, except for four or five, from the city limits.”
Gray asked for the NAACP’s help with a lawsuit, which was subsequently dismissed because it was “a political question.” Ultimately, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
Approaching the courtroom, under his arm he carried a map of Tuskegee with the new boundaries superimposed over the old ones. Before he could begin his argument, Justice Felix Frankfurter asked him about the map and to show him where Tuskegee Institute was in the city. Gray said he couldn’t, because it was outside of the city in the newly-drawn map.
“You mean to say the Tuskegee Institute is not in Tuskegee?” Frankfurter asked.
“No sir,” responded Gray.
The Court went on to decide the landmark case, Gomillion v. Lightfoot, in favor of Gray.
Tuskegee Syphilis StudyHe explained one of his biggest cases, that of the heretofore unknown Tuskegee Syphilis Study (1932-1972) lawsuit. He was instrumental in getting justice for the African-American men who were unwitting human subjects in a study of untreated syphilis secretly conducted by the federal government for 40 years at the Tuskegee Institute. Hundreds of rural African-American men were offered free medical care, when in fact their diagnoses of syphilis was not disclosed nor was it treated. The successful $10 million settlement in 1975 led to federal laws protecting human research subjects.
Gray broke down barriers both in court and in his profession. He served as the president of the National Bar Association in 1985 and in 2001 was elected as the first African-American president of the Alabama State Bar. He also served as an Alabama State Legislator.
“The work I have tried to do in these last 63 years, I see your university doing the same work,” he told the audience at Creighton. “I saw a problem when I was a teenager and I said that becoming a lawyer, I might be able to do something about it. I see this university working in that same vein.”
Gray’s autobiography, Bus Ride to Justice, was published in 1994, and a revised edition in 2012, which he signed copies of after the lecture. He also presented a copy to Rev. Hendrickson.
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