By Rawan Bitar
Educated at a Northern law school at a time Southern states provided African-Americans tuition to study law out of state so as not to integrate their own law schools, Fred D. Gray could not wait to return to Alabama and, “Destroy everything segregated I could find.”
Gray, the first black president of the Alabama Bar Assocation, was the guest speaker at the Judicial Luncheon at the Bar’s Annual Convention in Orlando. The veteran civil rights attorney is well known for his representation of Claudette Colvin, Rosa Parks, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the turbulent civil rights movement.
Former Bar President Eugene Pettis said, “Mr. Gray’s life has been the embodiment of a servant” and “his heart could not rest with the injustices he saw.”
Gray opened his own practice at 23 in Montgomery, Alabama, after studying law at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
In 1954, when he started practicing on his own, there were only eight African-American lawyers in Alabama.
“Frequently, people ask me, ‘How in the world is it that you represented Rosa Parks and Dr. King? How did you happen to represent those people?’” Gray said.
“What they don’t realize is that those people, just like you, and just like me, and just like anybody else, in Montgomery, Alabama, at the time, they were there and there were problems that needed to be worked on.”
Everything in Montgomery was completely segregated and African-Americans were mistreated on the busses, relegated to sit in the back.
Gray implored the audience to consider the importance of diversity in the courtroom, particularly among the judiciary. He said people have more confidence when they face someone of their own race or culture on the bench.
“Unfortunately, racism is still alive in this country. We do not have a level playing field,” Gray said. “There is no such thing as a race neutral society in America.”
Gray explained that the struggle for equal justice has not ended, especially for women and minorities.
“Notwithstanding the progress that we’ve made, we’ve still seen an increase in racism; we’ve seen an increase in burning churches; we have even seen an increase since Obama has been president in attacks. Some of them have been on the presidency itself.
“We have seen a Supreme Court that at one time was very, very careful in protecting the rights of minorities, including women, and to some degree, that court has reversed itself.
“We have even seen that our district courts and our courts of appeals do not seem today as interested in protecting the rights of individuals as they were some years ago,” he said.
“The question is: Where do we go from here?” Gray asked. “People think that the civil rights movement now is dead.”
Gray said each state should preserve its history in museums and exhibits, using the example of The Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center. He added that we should not allow Dr. King and all the leaders of the civil rights movement to have “died in vain.” Gray hopes to encourage lawyers to “use and trust in the rule of law to help solve the problems that we still have in this country.
“If we are to survive as a people, we must slay bigotry, corruption, inner turmoil, and conflict. We must work toward the fulfillment of true democracy and the preservation of freedom, justice, and equality for all,” Gray said.
“Our lives should be geared toward the manifestation of righteousness, for where there is righteousness in the heart, there is beauty in the character,” Gray continued. “If we have order in the nation, there will be peace in the world.”
With a career in law spanning almost 60 years, Gray served as president of the National Bar Association in 1985 and was the first African-American president of The Alabama Bar in 2002-03. In 1996, Gray received the ABA’s Spirit of Excellence award.