Acclaimed civil rights attorney Fred D. Gray returns to Savannah as keynote speaker for the March 31 MLK Freedom Gala, a fundraiser for the MLK Jr. Observance Day Association.
In the late 1950s, W.W. Law invited young Alabama attorney Fred D. Gray to Savannah to speak to a group of youths. Gray said he was impressed by the civil rights work being accomplished by Law, along with others here in Savannah.
“[Law] was a real great civil rights leader early on, when it was difficult,” Gray said from his law office in Montgomery, Ala.
Perhaps Law was impressed with Gray, who was representing Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her bus seat for a white person. He was also representing in the courts the Montgomery Bus Boycott and providing legal advice to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
During the boycott, Gray was in constant contact with King, he said, advising him on a day to day basis. In 1960, King was indicted on tax evasion. Gray was King’s lead council and tried his tax case before an all-white male jury, which returned a not guilty verdict.
“It was probably his most important case, and it enabled him to go on to do all the great things he did,” Gray said.
On a mission
Sixty years later, Gray said he is happy to return to Savannah as the guest speaker during the March 31 MLK Freedom Gala, a fundraiser for the MLK Jr. Observance Day Association that raises money for student scholarships and nonprofit groups in Savannah.
Along with Gray’s many successful legal cases that worked for the civil rights movement, Gray was one of the first African Americans to serve in the Alabama legislature (1970-74) since reconstruction. He served as the 43rd president of the National Bar Association from 1985-86. He filed lawsuits that integrated all state institutions of higher learning in Alabama and 104 of the then-121 elementary and secondary school systems in Alabama. He served as counsel in preserving and protecting the rights of persons involved in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study in 1972.
“I became a lawyer solely to destroy everything I found segregated in Alabama,” Gray said.
Currently, he is the senior managing shareholder in the law firm of Gray, Langford, Sapp, McGowan, Gray, Gray Nathanson P.C., with offices in Montgomery and Tuskegee and continues to serve his clients.
African Americans could not attend law school in Alabama when Gray graduated from Alabama State University in May 1951. He enrolled in law school at what is now Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where he graduated in May 1954.
“I took the Ohio bar in June, just in case” he had trouble in Alabama, he said. “In July 1954, I took the Alabama bar exam.” By Sept. 8, 1954, he was licensed to practice law in both states, and still is licensed in Alabama and Ohio.
His achievements are many in the courts of law, which agreed with the Constitution and equal rights for all. It is well documented in his book “Bus Ride to Justice: The Life and Works of Fred D. Gray.”
Before Parks, there was Colvin
His first civil rights case was Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old girl who refused to give her bus seat to a white person. She was arrested March 2, 1955, and became Gray’s client the next day, he said.
Nine months later, he represented Rosa Parks, whose situation was the same as Colvin’s, Gray said. But Parks’ actions ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
“She did what Mrs. Rosa Parks did,” Gray said of Colvin, “… without the instructions and the training and discussion I had with Mrs. Parks for about a year. Claudette saw a problem and simply wouldn’t get up and give up her seat.”
She had to ride the city bus across town to get to school, and that day school let out early. “On that particular day, she caught an earlier bus [home] than usual because the teachers were having a meeting that day. They excused the students. The first 10 seats are always reserved for white people. When other white people came on, blacks had to move,” Gray said. “She had paid her fare like everyone else and she wasn’t going to get up and didn’t get up.
“Claudette did not begin the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but she gave us the inspiration to do what we did months later and enabled to do it… No question she was brave.”
Later, Colvin became a plaintiff in the case that desegregated the buses in Montgomery, he said, adding that her story is told in “Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice,” by Phillip Hoose.
Challenging today’s youth
It was young people who moved this country forward in civil rights, Gray said, but it can be people of all ages who help make positive change. And the manner doesn’t have to be on a bus or in the courts.
“The basic principal is the same,” Gray said. “We still have some serious problems in this country. Many of them are race problems, many are not. The National Urban League has an annual report … on the status of African Americans. They detailed the disparities in every aspect of American life. It shows that income and housing and social injustice, when you compare the majority with the minorities. And health care. Those disparities should not exist. We still have serious problems to raise the overall economic, social and political level of minorities… Yet the Constitution speaks to us all being equal.
“Community leaders need to look in their communities, see what the problems are, discuss them with other people, to be sure they are genuine problems, then do what we did in Montgomery and the whole civil rights movement.
“Once you have a plan, implement the plan,” Gray said. “Everyone wants it solved, but they want everyone else to solve it.
“People shouldn’t be afraid,” he said. “After all, we are living in a land of laws… And they should be protected while they are exercising their constitutional rights. In 1965, we were beaten back on Bloody Sunday. Selma to Montgomery, those people were beaten back. They called me. I went across the bridge that night, talked to them; they told me they thought they had a constitutional right [to march] for the right to vote. That was late Sunday night. Before the close of day on Monday, I had filed a case of Williams vs. [Gov. George] Wallace. There was a hearing on Thursday, and the court ended up ruling after several days of testimony. (The marchers) had a constitutional right to march. The state had to protect them.”
The march took place for “one man one vote.” The Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed.
“A lot of African Americans and other minorities registered to vote,” Gray said. “Many became elected officials and it helped to change this nation.”
Marching is just one part of the civil rights movement, he said, adding it is a matter of enforcing constitutional laws. “I elected to use the law to go into court and take the Constitution of the United States. I used the Constitution to enable people to obtain their rights. Some of those rights are the right of peaceful, orderly protesting.”
The whole civil rights movement is multifaceted, Gray said. “People do different things. You can sit down and plan, participate in demonstrations, get people registered to vote. That’s what I’m going to tell people in Savannah. The struggle continues. While we’ve made a lot of progress, we still have a long way to go.
“W.W. Law, he was very concerned about helping black people obtain their constitutional rights,” Gray said.
“At the top of all of it, most people don’t want to admit it,” Gray said. “We still have some serious racial problems in this country. And we need to acknowledge the fact in this country or we won’t work on it. The message needs to come from the top that racism is wrong. It ought to come from the White House, the Supreme Court, the churches.
“… If you are going to get rid of [racism], you have to have a plan,” he said, “and you have to work with other people.”