1 week ago

Alabama attorney Fred Gray looks back on life of ‘destroying everything segregated’

Few people can say they knew Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks when that internationally celebrated pair were average citizens.

Fred Gray can.

The 90-year-old legendary civil rights lawyer has known most of the most-respected figures in the modern movement toward equality for Blacks. He represented Parks and King, persuading judges to make rulings that helped shape both of their lives. Gray’s courtroom victories led to many of the most important gains in reducing the vast disparity in rights that was a reality in America when he opened his first law office in Montgomery.

“Fred Gray is truly one of the giants of not only the legal profession, but of American history,” said Patricia Lee Refo, president of the 400,000-member American Bar Association. “He is the quintessential example of the great social good which a lawyer can accomplish.”

In 1954, Parks helped Gray set up his small headquarters at 113 Monroe St. and within a year he became friends with King. Together, the trio were in the front row of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which in 1956 brought a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that abolished segregation on public buses. Four years later, Gray convinced an all-white jury to acquit King on trumped-up tax evasion charges.

Over the next decades, Gray would win cases that affirmed the one person, one vote principle; ensured protection for marchers from Selma to Montgomery; integrated the University of Alabama, Auburn University and all Alabama public educational institutions; brought equal rights and protections to college students; ended systematic exclusion of Blacks from juries; integrated public parks; and allowed the NAACP to operate in the state. King called Gray “the chief counsel for the protest movement.”

“He’s one of my heroes,” said Pulitzer Prize-nominated historian Wayne Flynt. “I got to know him pretty well when I was writing ‘Alabama in the Twentieth Century,’ and I interviewed him, and I really, really admire him.”

Flynt said Gray was never intimidated in the courtroom facing white lawyers, judges and witnesses during civil rights cases. Despite efforts by whites to embarrass Gray, the Montgomery attorney “in an age of apartheid had more bone in his little finger than almost anyone I’ve ever known in their entire backbone,” Flynt said.

“His attitude was not to confront you in the sense that most whites understand,” said Flynt, Auburn University professor emeritus of history. “He was not going to raise his voice and he was not going to fling out profanities and he was not going to stomp his foot but what he was going to do is demand that you respect him as your equal.”

Gray remains sharp as a tack, continuing to work as an attorney for the 67th consecutive year, going into his Tuskegee office each day and tackling cases as if he were beginning his career. He doesn’t seek clients but is constantly asked to provide legal expertise. He hasn’t had a vacation in years, unless one counts when he was keynote speaker at conventions in places where people vacation.

Setting out as a 24-year-old to “destroy everything segregated I could find,” Gray, by most any measuring stick, has accomplished his lifelong goal. Yet, he admits, the road to freedom for Black Americans is still far from being a freeway.

“I think that we’ve made a tremendous amount of progress in almost every aspect of American life,” Gray said. “I’ve been able, with a lot of help along the way, to be instrumental to do some of that. However, the struggle for equal justice continues.”

Gray said he was alarmed at incidents that fueled the Black Lives Matter movement of the past year. His concerns were amplified by the “mob that went up to the Capitol” on Jan. 6. He said the nation has made obvious progress since Blacks were brought in chains to America 400 years ago but that two major problems remain.

“Racism is not over; we don’t live on a level playing field,” he said. “Secondly, inequality still exists. I don’t care what aspect you take, whether it’s in housing, whether it’s in employment, or whether it’s in health care or even the distribution of resources, they are not equal. … This country, up until now, has never faced the racism and the inequality questions. We just haven’t faced it.”

Born Dec. 13, 1930, one year into the Great Depression, it didn’t take Gray long to realize his predicament as a Black person on the poor side of Montgomery. His father, Abraham, died when Gray was 2, leaving Nancy Gray with five children and little income. His mother’s formal education ended after the fifth or sixth grade, but she relied on a religious upbringing to cope. She worked as a “domestic” in the homes of white people. Growing up on West Jeff Davis Avenue, Gray knew nothing about the legal profession.

“When I was coming along as a child in the ’30s and the early ’40s, there were only about two professions that Black young men or boys on my side of town could do that were respectable positions; that would be a preacher or a teacher,” he said. “And I decided that I would be both.”

The Grays regularly attended Holt Street Church of Christ, which was two blocks from where Rosa Parks lived and in the same area where the bus boycott began. Fred Gray “used to baptize cats and dogs” in his neighborhood, which caught the attention of his preacher, Sutton Johnson. The Holt Street religious leader recommended to Mrs. Gray that 12-year-old Fred be enrolled in the National Christian Institute boarding school in Nashville, Tennessee. Gray would become a favorite of the school president, Marshall Keeble, who was a pioneer Black preacher nationally in the Church of Christ.

“I was actually pretty good at preaching, because he took me around at that early age … to all these churches in Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and we would preach and we would end up recruiting students,” Gray said.

He graduated in 1948, returned to Montgomery and enrolled at Alabama State College for Negroes to become a teacher. Gray’s family had no car and, because his mother’s home was on the west side of town, he had to take city buses to classes at the college that is now Alabama State University on the east side of town.

“I found out then that Black people in Montgomery had some serious problems,” Gray said. “One, they were being mistreated on the buses, being told to get up and give white people their seats. A Black man had been killed on one of the buses. I concluded that while I didn’t know anything about lawyers, and didn’t know any lawyers, I understood that lawyers help people solve problems, and I thought Black people in Montgomery had problems. … Everything was completely segregated and we were just mistreated in every aspect of life.”

Gray graduated from ASU in 1951, deciding he wanted to be a preacher, teacher and lawyer. Because Blacks weren’t allowed to attend law schools in Alabama, he applied for and was admitted to Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. It was the first time he had ever lived in a white environment. In 1954, he graduated and took the Ohio bar exam, then came home and took the Alabama bar exam, passing both. On Sept. 7, 1954, Gray was licensed to practice in Alabama, becoming one of a handful of Black lawyers in the state.

Gray had been supported in his law school efforts by Parks, ASU professor J.E. Pierce, Montgomery civil rights activist E.D. Nixon and others. He’d followed his mother’s instructions to “Keep Christ first in your life, stay in school, get a good education and stay out of trouble.” She’d told him it was fine to be a lawyer, but to never stop preaching. Gray would preach at Newtown Church of Christ in the midst of important early civil rights trials and he continues preaching today.

Even before the bus boycotts, Gray was being groomed for that historic stage. He’d hardly begun practicing when he was hired to represent 15-year-old Claudette Colvin, who’d been arrested on March 2, 1955, for refusing to give up her seat to a white person on a Montgomery city bus.

“That was my first civil rights case, before Judge (Wiley) Hill. And I tried to explain to Judge Hill that she was not a delinquent … but they were trying to enforce the segregation laws, and they were unconstitutional, but the judge didn’t listen to me,” Gray said laughing. “He was nice and respectful but he found her to be a delinquent and placed her on unsupervised probation, which meant that she didn’t have to report to anybody. She didn’t get involved in any more trouble.”

Parks and Gray had been having lunch together in his office, which was just down the street from where she worked as a seamstress for the Montgomery Fair department store. They talked for a year about the buses, desegregation, fairness in society for Blacks and what needed to be done to overcome those problems.

“I knew that, though she never told me what she would do, I felt confident that she would not get up and give her seat if the situation arose,” Gray said.

On Dec. 1, 1955, Parks did not give up her seat.

Fifteen years later, Gray and Thomas Reed became the first Black members of the Alabama House of Representatives since Reconstruction. In 1970, Gray would become noted for his legislative expertise and oratory, but four years earlier he had been set to make history alone, prior to some last-minute vote-counting.

“It came out that I was elected (in 1966),” Gray said, “and then down in Barbour County, when the absentee votes came in, I had lost by the amount of votes that I had originally won by.”

After the loss, Gray decided to move from Montgomery to Black-majority Tuskegee, where he set up a law office and was elected to the state governing body. Soon afterward, he learned of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, and began representing the victims of the government effort in which Black men were offered free health care without being told they suffered from the disease. Gray won a lengthy court battle for the victims, which ultimately led to a public apology from President Bill Clinton. Gray wrote about his experiences in “The Tuskegee Syphilis Study” and his autobiography “Bus Ride to Justice.”

In his career, Gray has been lauded nationwide, including honorary doctorates from more than 10 universities. He was the first Black president of the Alabama Bar Association. He is in the National Black College Alumni Hall of Fame. He received the American Bar Association’s Thurgood Marshall Award. He was the National Bar Association president in 1985 and a decade later inducted into its Hall of Fame. Gray was named in 2019 as a “Living Legend” by the National Black Caucus of State Legislators and also as an Alabama Humanities Foundation Fellow.

Throughout his eight decades as a preacher, teacher and lawyer, Gray has credited his success to the earliest influence instilled by his mother.

“The Lord has played a major role in all of it,” he said. “I wouldn’t handle a case that I didn’t think the Lord would be pleased with what I was doing. Because I had, first, to be sure that what I’m doing is not contrary to God’s law and, secondly, it’s not contrary to my own basic religious background. So, it played a major role in all of it.”

Gray’s legal work and courtroom battles will be his legacy. He recognizes his role in societal changes since the 1950s has benefited Americans but Gray longs for more to be done in the nation he reveres.

“We need to, one, acknowledge the fact that racism and inequality is wrong, and that needs to start at the top. I’m glad the president (Biden) has taken a step in that direction,” Gray said. “But it also needs to go from the Supreme Court, the CEOs, the heads of our educational institutions, the heads of our fraternities and our sororities and the heads of our religious organizations.

“We have to acknowledge that racism and inequality is wrong,” Gray added. “We have to come up with a plan … and while we talk about it starting at the top, we must also, every one of us individually, needs to realize that racism and inequality is so ingrained in this nation.”

Over his career, Gray has handled thousands of lawsuits. Legal precedent finds his name alongside some of the most important cases in Alabama and American history. Cuba Gooding Jr. portrayed him in the movie “Selma,” persuading federal Judge Frank Johnson to allow King and others to march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. It was a milestone decision, yet legal experts and historians often debate about which of Gray’s cases is most important.

“When a person comes to a lawyer’s office, they usually have a problem,” Gray said. “And they don’t care how many cases you won or lost, all they want you to do is to devote effort to him and his case and get him the results he thinks he’s entitled to, whether he is legally entitled to it or not. I think all of my cases are the most important case I’ve had.

During Black History Month, Alabama NewsCenter is celebrating the culture and contributions of those who have shaped our state and those working to elevate Alabama today. Visit AlabamaNewsCenter.com throughout the month for stories of Alabamians past and present.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

60 mins ago

Rep. Jerry Carl introduces bill to prevent bureaucrats from removing, altering certain historical monuments

Congressman Jerry Carl (AL-01) on Monday filed his first-ever piece of legislation, titled “The American Heritage Protection Act of 2021.”

The Republican freshman representative from Mobile noted that his bill comes after the D.C. Facilities and Commemorative Expressions Working Group (DCFACES) last fall recommended 150 sites in our nation’s capital be either removed, contextualized or have their name changed. Sites specifically under fire include the Washington Monument, Jefferson Memorial, Woodrow Wilson High School and the fountain at Chevy Chase Circle.

Other historical figures with listed buildings or monuments included Alexander Graham Bell, Benjamin Franklin, Francis Scott Key, George Mason, Andrew Jackson and Christopher Columbus.

“Today, I was proud to introduce the American Heritage Protection Act of 2021, which protects our nation’s history from being erased or altered based on the whims of government bureaucrats,” said Carl in a statement.

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Carl’s bill would explicitly prohibit the U.S. Department of Interior from changing the names, removing or altering the following monuments in D.C.: the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, Jefferson Memorial, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial and Theodore Roosevelt Island.

Additionally, the legislation would prevent Interior from removing or altering statues related to the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 or Civil War battlefields under its purview.

“While many people wish to erase or rewrite our history, I believe the best path forward involves learning from our complex history and avoiding judgment of historical figures based on today’s standards,” the Coastal Alabama congressman concluded. “If we erase or rewrite our history, we are unable to learn and grow from our past. I urge my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to join me in this endeavor so we as Americans can engage in honest, accurate, and unifying discussions that enable us to move forward as one nation.”

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

1 hour ago

What Alabamians need to know about the latest activity on Goat Hill — March 2, 2021

MONTGOMERY — The Alabama Legislature on Tuesday will convene for the 10th day of its 2021 regular session.

There is also one committee meeting scheduled for the day, as well as one subcommittee meeting.

Read about what occurred last Thursday on the ninth legislative day here.

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Looking ahead

The Alabama Senate will gavel in at 2:00 p.m. on Tuesday.

This will come after the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee meets at 1:00 p.m. The committee’s agenda includes four election-related bills; especially of note, SB 235 sponsored by Sen. Dan Roberts (R-Mountain Brook) would ban curbside voting in Alabama. Curbside voting is not provided for in Alabama law, however it is also not explicitly barred at this time.

The committee is further scheduled to take up SB 259 by Sen. Will Barfoot (R-Pike Road) that would allow the legislature to call itself into a special session. The provisions of the bill would require a joint proclamation by the Senate pro tem and the House speaker to call a special session; a resolution carrying the support of 2/3 of each chamber would then have to be adopted before business could be taken up in such a special session. The bill was officially introduced last week on the first legislative day following Governor Kay Ivey’s “herd of turtles” remarks. Between Barfoot and 16 cosponsors, the bill already has the support of an effective majority of the Senate, which only has a maximum of 32 members in attendance so far this session. SB 259 is a companion bill to Rep. Becky Nordgren’s (R-Gadsden) HB 21, which was prefiled back in October. Her bill is set to be considered in a House committee on Wednesday.

The House will convene at 1:00 p.m. on Tuesday. Before that, the County and Municipal Government Committee’s Government Service Subcommittee will meet at 11:00 a.m. On that docket is SB 107 by Sen. Chris Elliot (R-Daphne).

The lower chamber’s floor action is set to focus on a 16-bill special order calendar, which can be viewed here.

Included on that calendar is Rep. Jamie Kiel’s (R-Russellville) HB 103, which would effectively erase the distinction between “essential” and “non-essential” businesses during a pandemic or other declared emergency.

Also slated for consideration is Rep. Scott Stadthagen’s (R-Hartselle) HB 391; this bill would mandate that public school students can only compete in athletic competitions aligning with the gender on their birth certificates.

Another notable bill on the House special order calendar is Rep. Paul Lee’s (R-Dothan) HB 249. This legislation would cap a health insurance beneficiary’s cost-sharing or co-pay for an insulin drug prescription at $100 per 30-day supply.

Observers may also be interested to know that Rep. Jeremy Gray’s (D-Opelika) HB 246 is on the calendar; this is the bill that would allow yoga to be offered in public K-12 schools.

Finally, Rep. Mike Jones (R-Andalusia) HB 392 is set to be considered. This bill would create a formal layer of legislative oversight — and additional transparency — on executive branch contracts, leases and agreements exceeding $10 million.

“It is important that we maintain a system of checks and balances, and the Legislature must be able to access important information about agreements that obligate the General Fund to substantial expenditures,” Jones said in a Monday statement. “This bill provides an additional layer of oversight on large executive branch agreements in a manner that is fair, transparent, and, most of all, constitutional.”

Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia) stated that he supports the bill.

“Whenever an administration enters into agreements involving millions of taxpayer dollars, the Legislature deserves to have its questions answered and any concerns addressed,” McCutcheon said. “Rep. Jones’s legislation offers a commonsense method of protecting taxpayers and reassuring lawmakers when large sums of dollars are being obligated.”

While it could pertain to items similar to Governor Ivey’s prison plan in the future, the legislation would not be retroactive and would not apply to current contracts, leases and other obligations.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

2 hours ago

LISTEN: Actor Robert Ri’chard previews upcoming faith-based movie ‘My Brother’s Keeper’

Robert Ri’chard grew up in South Central Los Angeles in a very challenging environment. He had to make disciplined choices at an early age that would help determine his future and get him to where he is today.

Robert, an actor, entertainer, entrepreneur and mentor, lives with purpose every day.

In this episode, we discuss the choices we all need to make each day to become who God calls us to be. We also talk about the upcoming movie he c0-stars in which will be coming out this month, “My Brother’s Keeper.” The movie deals with the struggles of PTSD and how God can help people overcome it. TC Stallings stars as a veteran returning from war and trying to reestablish a life back home. Robert plays his best friend, Donnie, and the two struggle to maintain their relationship after division arises between the two of them. The film also features Keisha Knight Pulliam and Joey Lawrence.

This is a great faith-based movie that is good for the whole family. Check local listings and online for viewing options starting March 19.

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14 hours ago

William Bell officially launches campaign to retake Birmingham mayor’s office

Former Birmingham Mayor William Bell officially launched on Monday his campaign to take back the office he held from 2010 through 2017.

Bell, 71, was prevented from earning a third term in office when Randall Woodfin, then-president of the Birmingham City School Board, beat him at the ballot box in 2017.

In his nearly three-minute video announcement released Monday, Bell listed several serious problems he felt Birmingham was facing, including violence in neighborhoods and poorly managed finances.

“Clearly, we need an experienced hand to get us back on track,” Bell intones.

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Though he never mentions Woodfin by name, Bell does not shy away from criticizing the man who ousted him in 2017.

“Four years of ineptitude and mismanagement has our city hurting and adrift,” Bell says in the video.

“The stakes are just too high for the current mayor to learn on the job. He is in over his head, and it shows,” continues Bell.

The announcement video includes images of Bell shaking hands with former President Barack Obama and President Joe Biden, two popular figures within the Democratic Party to which Bell belongs.

Other figures who have previously entered the Birmingham mayor’s race include Jefferson County Commissioner Lashunda Scales and businessman Chris Woods.

Woodfin has built a sizeable fundraising advantage over the three candidates seeking to unseat him, reporting over $1,000,000 cash on hand in his 2020 year-end finance report.

Bell’s campaign website, with information on his priorities for the city, can be accessed here.

Magic City residents head to the polls on Tuesday, August 24.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95.

14 hours ago

Watch: U.S. Senator Tommy Tuberville delivers maiden floor speech

U.S. Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) on Monday delivered his maiden speech on the floor of the United States Senate.

In his remarks, which spanned more than seven minutes, the freshman senator thanked the people of Alabama for sending him to Washington, D.C., spoke about his background as an educator and mentor, and emphasized that he looks forward to serving as Alabama’s voice as the people’s senator.

“In the end, I asked the people of Alabama to trust me with the responsibility of representing them here in Washington,” he said. “And they did. It’s humbling. It’s an opportunity to serve my country that I respect, cherish and will always honor. My staff and I will work hard every day to live up to that trust.”

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Continuing his emphasis on and passion for education, Tuberville subsequently remarked, “One thing I’ve learned, is that education is the key to freedom — freedom to live the life you want. I’ve seen firsthand how education can give you a leg up and a way out. It’s a way to achieve the American Dream. When we empower our young people with a quality education, we give them the gift of an opportunity — the greatest gift our country can give our citizens. And what I’ve found as a coach is that when people are given an opportunity to better themselves, they usually take it.”

He also outlined the following about education:

I found that we are failing our young people by not providing the quality education they deserve. It is not about money. It is about people. It is about what we value and what we each. Improving education in this country should be one of, if not the, top priorities we have. That is why I am proud to be a new member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

On the HELP committee, we need to work together – as a team – to do three things: first, we need to recognize that parents and teachers know how to best educate our young people in their community because we’re all different… We do not need a one-size-fits all education curriculum. What works in San Francisco will not necessarily work in Scottsboro, Alabama.

Second, we should recognize that education takes many forms. Not every student in America needs to go to a four-year college or university. To ensure our country remains competitive in the 21st century, we need to promote STEM education to those students who have an interest in math and science. But, to remain strong, this country also needs welders, plumbers, nurses, equipment operators, electricians, and craftsmen. These jobs have excellent pay and great futures.

If the Democrats want to pass a massive infrastructure bill, they need to first ask: ‘who’s going to build it?’ That’s why I’ll be looking for any opportunity to support career technical programs that prepare a skilled workforce.

And number three: we’ve got to start teaching our young people moral values again. That starts with putting God and prayer back in schools.

Watch Tuberville’s entire maiden floor speech here or below:

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn