February 22, 2013 11:39:07 AM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
Before he was a noted civil rights attorney, before he represented Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., before he won some of the most important cases in the South's troubled past, he was just a student on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., witnessing the first rumblings of a history he would eventually help write.
Thursday night, Alabama attorney and activist Fred Gray told his story to a packed auditorium at Mississippi University for Women's Poindexter Hall as part of the Gordy Honors College Forum Speakers Series.
Gray told of how he used the Montgomery bus system as often as six times per day going to classes to become a teacher and the way it troubled him how he and the other black passengers were treated. It was a demeaning, sometimes dangerous experience against which they had little recourse.
So he made a secret pledge: He would become a lawyer, and once he had his degree, he would destroy every vestige of segregation he could find in his home state.
The ink was barely dry on his diploma when he got his chance. A 15-year-old girl, Claudette Colvin, was arrested for refusing to relinquish her bus seat to a white passenger, and her parents hired Gray to represent her.
Nine months after Colvin's arrest, activist Rosa Parks was arrested for the same violation, and Gray was hired to represent her as well, thrusting him into the middle of the civil rights movement.
At the time, people like Parks and King weren't international icons for human rights, Gray told the audience Thursday night. They were just ordinary people trying to solve a problem.
That was the crux of Gray's speech: You don't have to be a star to make a difference; you just have to be a person who sees a problem and decides to do something about it.
He encouraged older people in the audience to write their stories down so future generations will know of the work that came before, and he exhorted young people to pick up where older activists like himself have left off.
"Racism is still alive in this country, and it's wrong," Gray said. "If the life and work of Dr. King means anything, it means that the struggle continues for equal justice under the law, particularly for women and minorities. It means there is a real challenge as to whether the gains we have obtained will continue or whether we lose them. If we lose, it means that Dr. King and all of the others who have given their lives for the protection of human rights and civil rights will have been in vain."
To eradicate racism, Gray said, people must recognize that it still exists, devising and executing a plan to end it in society at large, then routing it from their homes, churches and social organizations.
In his four decades as a lawyer, Gray has been at the forefront of some of those efforts, working on issues ranging from school desegregation and political redistricting to discrimination in voting, housing and other areas.
Noteworthy cases include Browder v. Gayle, which integrated Montgomery buses in 1956; Dixon v. Alabama Board of Education, which ruled that all students attending state-supported institutions be given a hearing before expulsion; and Williams v. Wallace, which ruled that Alabama Gov. George Wallace and the state of Alabama had to protect marchers as they walked from Selma to Montgomery to present grievances against voting laws. Their efforts led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed voter discrimination.
Gray said though he was sometimes afraid as he stood before white juries, arguing cases, he concentrated on being better than the other lawyers, never losing faith in the judicial system.
"We really live in a country of laws, and it's not supposed to be of men," Gray said. "But men are the ones who interpret these laws. My experience has been that violence isn't the way to solve these problems. We have to continue to work within our judicial and our political systems."
Gray, the author of "The Tuskegee Syphilis Study" and "Bus Ride to Justice," continues to practice law at age 82, serving as senior partner in the Montgomery, Ala. law firm of Gray, Langford, Sapp, McGowan, Gray and Nathanson. From 2002 to 2003, he served as the first black president of the Alabama Bar Association.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.