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For more than half a century, Tuskegee-based attorney Fred D. Gray has championed and safeguarded the civil rights of others through a number of landmark Alabama legal decisions. On Saturday, May 12, Tuskegee University will honor this civil rights legend, preacher and former state representative with an honorary doctor of laws degree.
Gray currently is senior partner in the firm of Gray, Langford, Sapp, McGowan, Gray, Gray & Nathanson P.C., based in Tuskegee. When he began practicing law in 1954, he promised himself he would work diligently to end racial segregation in his native Montgomery.
“For decades, Tuskegee University has benefited in countless ways from Fred Gray’s keen legal mind and his unwavering sense of service to the community and the university,” said Interim President Charlotte P. Morris. “We are humbled by that commitment and honored to celebrate his devotion to protecting the rights of others by bestowing on him an honorary degree.”
Even as a young attorney, Gray immediately associated himself with what would later become milestone legal cases advancing the civil rights movement. Among his most well-known clients are Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin who, in 1955, were both charged with disorderly conduct for refusing to give up their seats on a bus to white passengers. Parks’ case sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted for more than a year and led to the desegregation of the bus lines.
In addition to representing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Gray argued before the Supreme Court the unconstitutionality of Tuskegee-based rezoning laws created by local officials that would have excluded African-Americans from municipal elections. In another Supreme Court case, Gray was diligent in his efforts to allow the NAACP to organize in Alabama after the group was outlawed in the state. He also was instrumental in leading cases and filing lawsuits that led to the desegregation of all state institutions of higher learning under the Alabama State Board of Education, and 104 of the then 121 elementary and secondary schools systems in the state.
Gray filed a suit on behalf of the non-consenting subjects of the “U.S. Public Health Service Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” which spanned from 1932 to 1972 and studied the progression of untreated syphilis in hundreds of African-American men living in Tuskegee and surrounding Macon County. The men were not told of the study nor given appropriate medical treatment, and thus were left untreated for decades. In 1975, Gray obtained millions of dollars and proper care from the federal government for his surviving clients. In 1997, President Bill Clinton offered an apology on the government's behalf and an acknowledgment of what had happened.
Out of his involvement with the syphilis study case, Gray became the principal founder of the Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center, a nonprofit organization memorializing syphilis study participants. Today, the center educates the public on contributions made in the fields of human and civil rights by Native Americans and Americans of African and European descent.
Gray has authored two books about his legal experiences: Bus Ride to Justice and The Tuskegee Syphilis Study.
Throughout his career and public service, he has extended opportunities for African-Americans. In 1970, as a newly elected state representative, he was one of first African-Americans to serve in the Alabama Legislature since Reconstruction. He was elected as the first African-American president of the Alabama State Bar Association and served as the 43rd president of National Bar Association.
Gray is a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation, the American College of Trial Lawyers, and the International Society of Barristers. He was inducted into the Alabama Academy of Honor in 2005. His numerous professional and personal accolades include recognition by the Washington Bar Association, Harvard University Law School, the American Bar Association, the Federal Bar Association, The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, the Congressional Black Caucus, Case Western Reserve University, HOPE worldwide, and the National Conference of Bar Presidents.
Lipscomb University honored Gray with the naming of the Fred D. Gray Institute for Law Justice & Society in recognition of his commitment to civil rights and against racism. He is further recognized by the cities of Montgomery and Tuskegee with historical markers erected in his honor denoting his contributions in the fields of civil and human rights.
Gray attended Alabama State College, where he graduated in 1951, and then pursued his law degree at Case Western Reserve University. He is married to the former Carol Porter of Cleveland, Ohio. They share seven children and nine grandchildren.
For more information on the university’s Spring Commencement Exercises, visit www.tuskegee.edu/commencement.
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