JURIST Guest Columnist Anne Bloomberg talks about Fred D. Grey in honor of Black History Month...
Martin Luther King Jr. called Fred Gray the chief counsel of the Civil Rights movement. Gray was born in Alabama in 1930. Born and raised in the segregated South, he understood the full impact of segregation on black communities and experienced it personally. Gray attended a Christian boarding school in Nashville, Tennessee, because, at the time, there were no high schools for black students in his own community in Alabama until after World War II. He earned an undergraduate degree from Alabama State College, a segregated college, before leaving Alabama again to pursue a law degree at Case Western Reserve University. Gray made a promise to himself that he would fight to destroy everything segregated he could find.
In 1954, Fred Gray earned his law degree, was admitted to the Ohio and Alabama bars, and opened his own law office in Montgomery, Alabama. His work to destroy segregation began the next year when he represented Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks. Both women were charged with disorderly conduct for refusing to move to the segregated section of the bus. Their convictions led to the Montgomery bus boycott, a seminal event in the Civil Rights movement.
He continued on, successfully representing Vivian Malone and James Hood; students unlawfully denied admission to the University of Alabama. After the District Judge ordered they be admitted, Alabama Governor George Wallace famously blocked the doorway to prevent their pre-registration at the University. Gray would represent clients in the desegregation of all the public colleges and universities in Alabama as well as over 100 local schools.
Gray kept his promise to himself, fighting all forms of segregation. He was involved with a gerrymandering case, Gomillion v. Lightfoot, in which the district lines had been redrawn to excluded nearly every African American voter. When the case reached the Supreme Court, Gray presented the arguments. He carried a map of the new district of Tuskegee, which had gone from a square to a 28-sided figure. When Justice Frankfurter asked why the Tuskegee Institute was not on the map, Gray knew he had won.
As chief counsel of the Civil Rights movement, Gray’s impact went beyond the Civil Rights movement. Through his representation of the Martin Luther King Jr. in a tax perjury case, Gray would come to secure the first amendment press freedoms of all Americans. Times v. Sullivan set the standard for libel law. Gray represented the ministers who were accused of making defamatory statements about police brutality in Alabama in an advertisement in the New York Times. The ad was designed to raise money for Martin Luther King Jr.’s defense on the tax perjury case.
Gray’s Civil Rights work also created a ripple effect in the protection of human research subjects. He represented the plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit about the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. The U.S. Public Health Service enrolled poor African American men, telling them they would get free health care and funeral benefits, in exchange for participating in a study about syphilis. In reality, the study was the observation of the natural progression of untreated syphilis. Gray negotiated a $10 million-dollar settlement for the 72 subjects still alive in 1975. The subsequently infected spouses and congenitally infected children were eventually compensated as well. The lawsuit led to the several federal laws designed to protect human research subjects.
In his memoir, Bus Ride to Justice, Gray urges young lawyers to “finish the unfinished tasks of destroying discrimination and segregation wherever found.” While the problems of discrimination are massive and complex, they cannot be ignored. He highlights the issues of economic discrimination and voter disenfranchisement. He ends the memoir with a grim observation, “no objective observer can claim that Alabama or any other Southern state has completely removed discrimination and the legacies of slavery and segregation from its electoral systems or institutional structures. To pretend otherwise is disingenuous at best.”
Anne Bloomberg is a law student at University of Pittsburgh School of Law and a staff writer for JURIST. She has a PhD in Sociology from the University of Virginia and studies the boundary of rights, access to justice, and the rule of law.
Suggested citation: Anne Bloomberg, Destroy Everything Segregated – The Life Work of Fred D. Gray, Sr., JURIST – Student Commentary, February 18, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/02/bloomberg-fred-d-gray/
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