Fred David Gray
December 14, 1930 –
Notable: Civil Rights Attorney
Fred David Gray was born in Montgomery’s Washington Park neighborhood, the youngest of Nancy and Abraham Gray’s five children. Unfortunately, Gray’s father died when he was two years old. Prior to his death, Abraham provided for the family by working as a carpenter while Nancy was a domestic worker and cook.
Abraham’s death created financial difficulties for the family that required Nancy to become the breadwinner. Due to his mother having to work full-time, Gray began school one year early. At the age of five, he was enrolled in the first-grade at the Loveless School in his aunt’s class. In keeping with Nancy’s wishes that Gray become a preacher, he attended the Nasville Christian Institute (NCI) from the eight grade onward.
Attending NCI provided an opportunity for Gray to spend a lot of time in the company of Marshall Keeble, the school’s president. Keeble was both a teacher and preacher and being in close proximity to him allowed Gray to observe and learn a great deal about public speaking. While still a teen, Gray was ordained as a minister. And after graduating from high school, he enrolled at Alabama State College for Negroes.
The plan had been for Gray to become a history teacher and preacher. But while attending Alabama State College, a professor encouraged Gray to apply for law school. Due to segregation, none of the state’s grad schools accepted Black students. Looking otuside the state Gray applied to and was accepted at the Western Reserve University Law School (now Case Western Reserve University).
In 1954, with his new law degree in hand, he returned to Montgomery and established a private law practice with the aim of fighting segregation. Two major events would occur in Gray’s life during the next two years. One was his marriage to Bernice Hill, a union that would produce four children. The other which would bring Gray to prominence was his representation of Rosa Parks following her arrest on December 1, 1955 which would spark the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
As one of only two Black attorneys in town, Gray would play a prominent role in multiple local civil rights cases. He and Parks were friends and had met for lunch on the day of her arrest. Earlier in the year, Gray had served as council for Claudette Colvin after she’d also been arrested for refusing to give up her seat in accordance with local segregation laws. He also represented Aurelia Browder and three other women in Browder v. Gayle, another public transportation segregation case. Gray’s work on those cases led to a federal court deeming the laws which created segregated public transportation unconstitutional.
Through political and legal machinations, Alabama had basically outlawed the NAACP. Thus for the most part, the organization was unable to openly work in the state. Instead, Gray provided legal support for local activists, initiatives, and organizations including the NAACP. He served as council in several cases involving voting rights and education segregation.
Efforts to gerrymander Tuskegee, Alabama by rezoning a large number of Black citizens from being within to being outside the city limits were repeled. And rays efforts led to the integration of several local school districts as well as public colleges and universities. He filed a class-action lawsuit and an order of protection against law enforcement on behalf of the Selma marchers who had been attacked on Bloody Sunday. Obtainment of a successful verdict enabled the marches to move forward.
Gray was part of the legal team that successfully defended Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. against charges of state tax evasion. He even fought back against a ploy to make him ineligible to practice law. The 1970s would bring additional milestones in Gray’s life. At the start of the decade he was elected to the state legislature becoming only the second Black person to have done so since Reconstruction. Two years later, Gray filed another important class-action lawsuit. This time he was serving as the legal representative of the victims of the Tuskegee Syphillis Study. The lawsuit would drag on for 25 years and result in a settlement and the government avoided admitting to any wrongdoing.
At the end of the decade, Gray was nominated by President Jimmy Carter as a US district court judge. Gray later requested to be withdrawn from consideration after local conservatives took issue with his civil rights record. Over the years, Gray has received numerous awards recognizing his contributions as an attorney. He published an autobiography, Bus Ride to Justice, in 1994 which was updated in 2012. Fred Gray was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on July 7, 2022.
- Baadom-Piaro, Bemene. 2020. “Fred D. Gray (1930- ).” BlackPast.org. July 25, 2020. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/gray-fred-d-1930/.
- “Fred D. Gray, Sr.” n.d. Alabama Lawyers Association. Accessed September 13, 2022. https://ala-lawyers.org/fred-gray-sr/.
- “Fred Gray, Attorney Born.” 2022. African American Registry. September 1, 2022. https://aaregistry.org/story/attorney-for-the-community-fred-gray-born/.
- “Gray, Fred David, Sr.” 2020. The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute. August 4, 2020. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/gray-fred-david-sr.
- “Gray, Fred Sr. 1930–.” 2002. Encyclopedia.com. Encyclopedia.com. September 13, 2002. https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/gray-fred-sr-1930.
- Key, Barclay. 2022. “Fred Gray.” Encyclopedia of Alabama. July 12, 2022. http://encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1510.
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