By Jannell McGrew
When now famous civil rights attorney Fred Gray Sr. decided to be a lawyer, the first thing he wanted to do was “tear down everything segregated I could find.”
Gray made history 50 years ago when he successfully argued the U.S. Supreme Court case that led to the desegregation of buses in Montgomery. He made history yet again in 2002, when he was installed as the first black president of the Alabama State Bar Association.
Gray not only was the attorney for Rosa Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — he was their friend. He continues his work in civil rights today and at age 74, he continues his work in arguing court cases. But it was Montgomery’s segregated buses that would be his proving ground.
“The bus situation and how our people were treated on buses bothered me,” Gray said. “While I didn’t have any direct altercations with anybody, I had seen many people who had, and when I looked around and realized that everything in Montgomery was completely segregated … I just concluded there was something wrong about all of that.”
Gray’s route to the halls of justice was a roundabout one.
Before he began studying law and learning the art of arguing a case in a courtroom, he investigated another, more spiritual path.
When Gray was 12, he left his native Montgomery and traveled to Tennessee to attend the Nashville Christian Institute. He was such an apt pupil that Marshall Keeble, the school president, selected him to help raise funds and recruit students.
He traveled around with Keeble all over the country as a boy preacher, “as a specimen of what the school produces,” Gray recalled.
He returned to his hometown with the hopes of doing ministry work or becoming a teacher – “two safe positions or professions for African Americans in the 1940s and early 1950s,” he noted.
But something happened to alter his course — the Jim Crow law, especially as it was imposed on the Montgomery bus system.
Not only did blacks have to sit in the rear of buses, they had to pay their fare in the front then get out and walk around to the back of the bus to get in. Many blacks were mistreated by bus drivers who allowed them to pay, then drove off without letting them get on after they had stepped out to walk to the back. By many in the black community, it was called simply the “bus situation.”
The “bus situation” could best be confronted, Gray soon concluded, in the courtroom rather than in the sanctuary.
Gray credits Montgomery resident Thelma Glass, another boycott supporter, for helping him chart the course to law school.
So did E.D. Nixon, whom Gray often describes as “Mr. Civil Rights,” and Alabama State University professor J.E. Pierce.
Gray decided in his junior year of college to pursue a career in law. Gray couldn’t attend the then-segregated University of Alabama, although he later would argue a case that opened the doors once closed to him.
When he got ready to go to law school, Glass recommended him to go to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Glass said.
So he headed to Cleveland. To help pay for school, he worked at “any job that was available,” Gray said, from button factories to dry cleaners. At Case Western, he said, he studied the ins and outs of Alabama law, even crafting his papers around the subject.
When he returned to Montgomery, he said, he wanted to be ready for the state’s judicial system.
“Secretly I said to myself, ‘I’m going to come back (to Montgomery) and begin destroying everything segregated I can,’” Gray recalled. “That was my commitment, my secret commitment, and I didn’t tell anybody about that for 35 years.”
He was admitted to the Ohio bar association in 1954 and to his home state’s bar the same year.
The following year, he got his chance to battle segregation.When Parks was arrested, Gray already had been the attorney for Claudette Colvin, who had been arrested a few months earlier under similar circumstances.
“That was the young lady who really gave all of us the courage to do what we later did when Mrs. Parks” refused to give up her seat, Gray said.
Gray’s commitment to winning civil rights cases didn’t end with the bus boycott. He sued on behalf of the participants in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and helped overcome Gov. George Wallace’s stand in the schoolhouse door.
There was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. the State of Alabama, filed after the civil rights organization was barred from doing business in the state.
Gray said the case went through the state’s court system three times and through the federal court system twice. He and the NAACP ultimately prevailed.
In the 1965 case of Williams v. Wallace, blacks filed a class-action suit against Wallace and the state, which resulted in a court order for the protection of protesters as they marched from Selma to Montgomery. His efforts earned him recognition around the world.
In 1970, he became one of the first two blacks elected to the Alabama Legislature since Reconstruction. He served until 1974. The National Bar Association, a group that black lawyers founded in 1923 when the American and state bar associations didn’t allow blacks, elected Gray as its president in 1985.
The list of accolades and accomplishments goes on.
Take the case of Gomillion v. Lightfoot, which arose after the state Legislature gerrymandered all blacks out of Tuskegee.
Looking back over the events of the civil rights era and the events of his life, Gray mused over the magnitude of change that eventually occurred because of the efforts of people like himself, King, Parks and many others.
But it is the desegregation of public transportation case that he is perhaps best known for in the Captial City. It is a watershed ruling he holds dear.