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Fred Gray was 'chief counsel' of the civil rights era. At 91, he's still in the fight

Fred Gray and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., break into laughter at a joke told by a speaker at a political rally in Tuskegee, Ala., on April 29, 1966. King once called Gray the "chief counsel" of the civil rights movement.
Jack Thornell
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Associated Press
Fred Gray and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., break into laughter at a joke told by a speaker at a political rally in Tuskegee, Ala., on April 29, 1966. King once called Gray the "chief counsel" of the civil rights movement.

Updated August 21, 2022 at 7:14 AM ET

On a recent summer day, President Joe Biden awarded the nation's highest civilian honor — the Presidential Medal of Freedom — to civil rights lawyer Fred Gray.

While Gray may not be as well known as other giants of the civil rights movement — names like John Lewis, Rosa Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — his legacy is no less vital.

"One of the most important civil rights lawyers in our history, Fred's legal brilliance and strategy desegregated schools and secured the right to vote," Biden said during last month's Medal of Freedom ceremony. "An ordained minister, he imbued a righteous calling that touched the soul of our nation."

Fresh out of law school, Gray represented 15 year-old Claudette Colvin, who was arrested in 1955 for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person — nine months before Parks did the same thing.

President Joe Biden awards the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to Fred Gray during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on July 7, 2022.
Susan Walsh / Associated Press
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Associated Press
President Joe Biden awards the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to Fred Gray during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on July 7, 2022.

During the bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala. that Gray helped organize, he defended Parks and the others who were arrested for participating — including King, who once called Gray the "chief counsel" of the protest movement.

If Gray's life had a motto, it would be, as he often says, "To destroy everything segregated I could find." But growing up in Montgomery in the 1930s and 40s, Gray says he wasn't thinking about presidential medals. "It just was a matter of a Black boy living in a Black community where everything was completely segregated."

Gray, now 91 and still practicing law, recently sat down to speak with NPR about his work. Here are excerpts from that conversation, edited in parts for clarity and length.


Interview Highlights

What drove him to a career in law

As I grew up basically there were two professions that a young African American could think about being and that would be a preacher or a teacher.

So I thought I would end up being a preacher ... My family was very religious. Youngest of four children. My father died when I was two. Mother only had a sixth-grade education, but we had a preacher who was from Tennessee and he knew about a church school that prepared boys in the Church of Christ to be preachers. They found a way to get me up to that school ... and I apparently was a pretty good little boy preacher.

But I finished high school ... I was going to go to and had been accepted at what was then Alabama State College for Negroes, which is now Alabama State University in Montgomery. On the buses traveling from the west side of Montgomery to the east side I realized these problems African Americans were having and I decided that I was going to be a lawyer.

They told me that lawyers helped people who had problems. And I thought that Black people in Montgomery had problems. So I was going to become a lawyer and help solve those problems. But I didn't just want to practice law, I wanted to practice law in Alabama and help to solve the problems in my hometown.

Meeting Rosa Parks

I had met Mrs. Rosa Parks when I was a student at Alabama State before I went to law school. And she was the secretary to the branch of the NAACP. She was chairman of the youth committee. And I would go to some of her youth meetings when I was in college. And I opened my law office, which was located a block and a half from the Montgomery Fair, which was the department store where she was working. And we had a meeting during her lunch hour where she would walk up to my office and we would sit down and have lunches and we talked about our problems.

Gray, right, helped defend Rosa Parks, left, against charges of disorderly conduct after she was arrested in Montgomery, Ala., for refusing to give up her bus seat to white passengers. Above, Gray and E.D. Nixon, a former Alabama state president of the NAACP, appear with Parks on Dec. 5, 1955 as she makes bond.
/ Associated Press
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Associated Press
Gray, right, helped defend Rosa Parks, left, against charges of disorderly conduct after she was arrested in Montgomery, Ala., for refusing to give up her bus seat to white passengers. Above, Gray and E.D. Nixon, a former Alabama state president of the NAACP, appear with Parks on Dec. 5, 1955 as she makes bond.

We talked about, if a person decided that they were asked to get up to give their seat to a white person, if they didn't want to do it how should they conduct themselves? We talked about segregation. We talked about improving youth conditions. And we did that about four or five days a week. And our last conversation was on December the First, 1955. I told Mrs. Parks that I had an engagement out of the city and I wouldn't be in that afternoon. She went back to work. When I got back she had been arrested. I was surprised, but I understood it.

While she never said if the opportunity presented itself ... what she would do, I had a feeling that if that opportunity presented itself she was well prepared and knew what to do.

The Montgomery bus boycott

Jo Ann Robinson ... was a professor at Alabama State, [and] chairman of the Women's Political Council, an organization of Black educated women who was trying to help solve the problems that African Americans have. We sat in her living room and planned what developed into the Montgomery bus boycott.

I told her, "Well, I can handle the legal aspect, but it takes a long time for a case to ultimately decide that's going to destroy segregation." She said, "Well why don't we just get a leaflet out asking the community to stay off of the buses and then meet at a church and we'll decide where we go from there."

I said "That's fine. The only thing with it is if we are successful and if people stay off of the buses we have to have a plan as to how to keep them off of the bus until there's a non segregated basis." In order to do that we need to get a spokesman. Somebody who can speak, keep the people together, and be able to communicate whatever our request is to the community and to the power structure in Montgomery. And, of course, we also need to have a transportation system.

In 1970, Gray was sworn in as one of the first two Black legislators in Alabama since reconstruction.
/ Associated Press
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Associated Press
In 1970, Gray was sworn in as one of the first two Black legislators in Alabama since reconstruction.

[Robinson] said, "Well Fred, I tell you who the spokesman needs to be. My pastor. Martin Luther King Jr. hasn't been in town long, only been here a year, hasn't been involved in any civil rights activities but one thing he can do, and that is he can move people with words."

I said, "That's who we need."

And it was the beginning of what developed into the civil rights movement.

"We haven't changed the attitudes"

We were fortunate enough to have a court during the early stages of my career that really, in my opinion, looked at the Constitution and it wasn't a political matter. While it may have been a political appointment, they realized that once they took an oath of office as a Justice on the Supreme Court, everything else is unimportant: who appointed them, who voted for them or who voted against them. It's unfortunate that we're having the difficulties that we're having now with the current position that the court is taking on some of these important issues.

And this is a serious matter. While we have gained some things, if we're not careful we can end up losing some of the gains we have. And that's the challenge before us today. And while we have many of our people now who have jobs and doing a lot better than when I was coming up, we still have these problems and those basic problems are the same: racism and inequality.

In 2021, the city of Montgomery, Ala., celebrated Fred Gray for his contributions to the civil rights movement by renaming a street in his honor.
Vasha Hunt / Associated Press
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Associated Press
In 2021, the city of Montgomery, Ala., celebrated Fred Gray for his contributions to the civil rights movement by renaming a street in his honor.

We have changed the laws but we haven't changed the attitudes behind the persons who are enforcing those laws.

I think today, it's going to take demonstrations, but we're going to still have to do whatever it takes to get the courts to rule properly. That's why registration and voting is so important, so we can elect the right people, so that the right persons can be appointed or elected to these judgeships, including when they are appointed to the Supreme Court. And we still have to have faith in the legal system because that's the system that has brought us so far. But we have to do all these other things to help that legal system work.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Samantha Balaban is producer at Weekend Edition.
Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Shannon Rhoades is NPR's senior editor for interviews.