Opinion

Why Biden should recognize 'the legal engine of the civil rights movement' — before it's too late

You know about Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Selma. Now it's time to learn Fred D. Gray's name.

He served as Martin Luther King Jr.'s first civil rights attorney. He defended Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin after they refused to give up their seats on Montgomery city buses to white passengers. He filed a lawsuit on behalf of John Lewis the day after Bloody Sunday, which allowed protesters asking for voting rights to peacefully cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge during a march from Selma to Montgomery. He represented subjects of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study in a class-action lawsuit, securing a $10 million settlement and medical treatment for the survivors.

His name is Fred D. Gray, and a movement is now underway to honor him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian honor.

At 91, Gray is still practicing law in Alabama, nearly seven decades after he opened his office in Montgomery. Ryan Haygood, president and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, is leading the charge to get Gray the Presidential Medal of Freedom, launching a petition on Change.org in February.

"Far too often in life, we celebrate those who have made a tremendous impact on the world only after death," Haygood told The Week. "We have the chance to celebrate the legal engine of the civil rights movement now. President Biden should not miss that chance."

Born and raised in segregated Alabama, Gray earned his law degree from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, leaving his home state because no law schools there would accept Black students. He began practicing law in Montgomery on Sept. 7, 1954, vowing to put an end to the discriminatory practices in place across Alabama.

"I was ready to begin destroying everything segregated I could find, but I still didn't tell anybody about it, not even my own family," Gray told Haygood during a recent interview. "They didn't need to know all of what I had in mind because if I had told people that I was going to go to law school, become a lawyer, and destroy everything segregated I could find, I never would have been admitted to the Alabama Bar Association."

Gray did what he set out to do, litigating several major civil rights cases, from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the Selma-to-Montgomery March. He "represented justice in a country that often struggled — and continues to struggle — with achieving it," Haygood said.

Haygood was a high school student in Denver when he first learned about Gray's role in the civil rights movement and how he was "the legal engine behind the scenes making sure meaningful change happened." The pivotal moments now described in textbooks — the boycotts, the marches, the sit-ins — "are memorialized, rightfully so, in our collective consciousness," Haygood said. "But if you ask most people if they've ever heard of Fred Gray, the answer is probably no."

That's "a shame," he continued. "Because if you ask me, would we have made as much progress without Fred Gray? The answer is a resounding no."

The civil rights movement may be decades in the past, but Haygood warns there is an urgent need to protect the gains made by Gray, King, Lewis, and Parks. "It's been a difficult couple of years for so many — and for justice itself," he said. "We've seen a violent white supremacy-fueled insurrection upon our nation's Capitol, voter suppression laws passed throughout our country, and public schools attempt to restrict what children can read and learn about this country's history. Against the backdrop of efforts to move us backward, it's more important than ever now to honor — and have conversations about — people like Mr. Gray, who did so much to move us forward." 

There are a lot of people who agree with Haygood; so far, his petition to grant the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Gray has more than 20,680 signatures.

"Signing this petition isn't just an act of honoring a man who honored America by fighting for justice — it's an act that says what Mr. Gray dedicated his life fighting for is as important today as it was decades ago," Haygood said. "It's an act that says: I believe America should be a better, more equitable place. It's an act that tells the president of the United States that we remember where we came from and where we need to go."

Some say the United States became a real democracy in 1796, when George Washington delivered his farewell address. Others, though, believe it wasn't until many years later, when the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law by Lyndon B. Johnson, banning racial discrimination in voting — a move that came shortly after the third voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, which was written about in newspapers and featured on the evening news, helping to increase national support for the cause.

Gray's lawsuit was "instrumental" in allowing marchers to peacefully cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma during their trek to Montgomery, and "without that watershed moment, who knows what America would be today," Haygood said. "What we do know is, in a time of Black Lives Matters signs on lawns across America, Mr. Gray spent a lifetime making sure Black lives really do matter in America."

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