Bus ride to justice: a conversation with Fred Gray.

Author:Entin, Jonathan L.
Position:1960s civil rights lawyer - Interview

In the fall of 1951, Fred Gray, an African American from Montgomery, Alabama, enrolled in what was then called the Western Reserve University School of Law. His goal was to become a lawyer and return home to destroy everything segregated he could find. (1)

Not long after he graduated from this law school and opened a law office back home, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white man. Fred Gray, who had not yet reached his twenty-fifth birthday, was Rosa Parks's lawyer. Mrs. Parks's arrest led to the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott, which was coordinated by the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). Fred Gray was the lawyer for that organization. The MIA's most prominent leader was a previously unknown young minister named Martin Luther King Jr. Fred Gray was Dr. King's lawyer. Mr. Gray filed the lawsuit in which the Supreme Court vindicated the boycott by striking down Montgomery's bus-segregation ordinance.

The bus case, Gayle v. Browder, (2) was one of four landmark Supreme Court cases in which he played a prominent role. In addition, Mr. Gray was part of the legal team in NAACP v. Alabama ex rel. Patterson, (3) an important freedom-of-association case that protected organizational membership lists from disclosure to hostile government officials; he argued Gomillion v. Lightfoot, (4) the Tuskegee gerrymandering case that helped to lay the groundwork for the reapportionment revolution that began with Baker v. Carr; (5) and he represented the black ministers who were sued in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, (6) the landmark case that applied the First Amendment to the law of defamation in order to protect robust political debate.

These cases occurred during Fred Gray's first decade as a lawyer, but they are only highlights of his extraordinary six-decade career in the law. He has been involved in almost every major civil rights case in Alabama since he became a lawyer, representing freedom riders, (7) sit-in demonstrators, (8) and students seeking to desegregate public schools, colleges, and universities throughout the state. (9) He also filed the federal lawsuit that led to protection for the Selma-Montgomery march, (10) which helped to secure passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, (11) and later litigated important cases under that statute. Moreover, Fred Gray was one of the first two African Americans elected to the Alabama legislature after Reconstruction. Last but by no means least, he represented the victims of the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment, obtaining a financial settlement as well as a formal apology from the President of the United States. (12)

This is the briefest possible summary of the remarkable career of one of the great members of the American legal profession and an unsung hero of the civil rights movement. Two decades ago, Fred Gray published a memoir, Bus Ride to Justice. (13) I reviewed the memoir in the Journal of Legal Education. (14) Last year, he brought out an updated edition that added some reflections on his earlier activities and incorporated more recent developments, including his election as the first black president of the Alabama State Bar Association, his receipt of the American Bar Association's Thurgood Marshall Award, his continuing involvement in civil rights litigation, and his founding of the Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center, which chronicles the contributions of the diverse population of the local area and of the American Southeast to the development of our nation. (15)

The editors of the Case Western Reserve Law Review responded to my query about reviewing the revised edition by proposing instead that I interview Mr. Gray. On October 30, 2013, he and I spoke before a packed house at the law school. What follows is a very lightly edited version of our conversation. It has been one of the highlights of my academic career and one of the greatest honors of my life to count Fred Gray as a friend. Our conversation will introduce you to a legendary civil rights lawyer, but please read Bus Ride to Justice to understand how much Fred Gray exemplifies Justice Holmes's admonition to "live greatly in the law." (16)


DEAN ENTIN: Fred, welcome back. It is a pleasure to have you here. It is a pleasure to see you again. Let us start at the beginning. You originally planned to be a minister. How did you decided to become a lawyer?

MR. GRAY: Before I answer your question, let me first express to the Dean my appreciation for the remarks he made, to you and to the law school and to BLSA, the Black Law Students Association, and to the Law Review for making this trip possible. To all of you students I just want to say to you that over sixty years ago I sat where you are sitting--not in this building but in the old building on Adelbert. (17) I had no idea that I would ever be coming back to this institution under these circumstances. I say that to you because you sit and you listen now and wonder what is going to happen in your lives. I hope that my coming to this university and the story of my life will help you as you try to determine what you are going to do with your own career.

It is good to see Attorney Harper and my friend Charles Chambliss. He is a young man who is originally from Macon County, Alabama, and who worked with us a great deal down there. He came back to Cleveland about two or three weeks ago. He called me the other day, and I told him I was going to be here. He is here, and I am happy to see them both. I am also happy to see each of you.

Having said that, I will now, Professor Entin, try to answer your question. Sometimes when you are trying a case and you are asked a question--if you are fortunate enough to get a judge who will let you make a speech--you go ahead and make your speech. It may have an effect on the jury if it does not have an effect on the judge.

I was born in Montgomery, Alabama, in the cradle of the Confederacy, in the middle of the Depression in 1930. I was the youngest of five children, and my father died when I was two. My mother had little formal education, only to about a fifth- or sixth-grade level. But she told us, the five of us, that we could be anything we wanted to be if we did three things. First, keep Christ first in our lives. Second, stay in school and get a good education. And third, stay out of trouble; do not get involved in the criminal justice system. I tried to do that, and I tried to instill those principles into my four children. I hope I did that, and I hope that their children will also be so inspired.

When I was coming along in Alabama in the 1940s as a teenager, there was probably only--you would not know this, but your parents would know it--about two professions that a black, African-American boy could look forward to as being a well-respected professional. You probably could guess both. One option was to be a teacher. And the other one would be a preacher.

And if you taught or you were a preacher, it was in a segregated system. If you were black, you preached to black people in a black church. If you were a black teacher, you taught black children in a black school. I decided I was going to be both. When I was growing up, my mother said I used to baptize cats and dogs.

We had a Church-of-Christ-related school up in Nashville that was a boarding school. When I was twelve years old, I went up to that school to learn how to be a preacher, and apparently I did pretty good because the president of the school--one of our old evangelists--would go around and raise funds at churches across the country. He decided one way of raising funds and soliciting students was to take students along one or two students with him to serve as boy preachers. Those boy preachers would preach ahead of him. He would tell the audience, "This is the type of boys that we produce at the Nashville Christian Institute. You send your son to us and we will send him back a good man."

That is what I did. I was one of his first boy preachers. Throughout the Southeast, from Texas to Florida--all around--we recruited students and raised money for the school.

I finished there in 1948, went back to Montgomery, and enrolled at Alabama State College. Actually the name of it then was Alabama State College for Negroes, (18) the historical black school in Montgomery. I lived on the west side of town. Alabama State was located, and still is, on the east side of town. I had to use the public transportation system from as little as twice a day to as many as eight times a day. I saw many of our people mistreated on the buses. Sometimes when white people would come on and the bus would become full, they would take a black man's money at the front door and direct him to go in the back door. Sometimes the bus driver--I would not say he intentionally did it--would close the doors and drive away before a person could get in the back door. Everything at that time was completely segregated.

We had a family friend whose name was E.D. Nixon. He was a Pullman car porter by profession. He had been president of the State Conference of Branches in the State of Alabama for the NAACP. He had also been the president of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP. (19) If a person of color had any racial problems, he or she would usually contact E.D. Nixon. I had seen him try to help our people, but he was having difficulty finding lawyers.

If a person of color had a cause of action against a white person, there was almost no justice to be received. One of the problems was that there were no black lawyers and white lawyers would be afraid to accept those kinds of cases. I made a personal, secret commitment while I was a junior at Alabama State that I was going to finish at State and that I was going to go to somebody's law school, someplace. At that time the State of Alabama, along with all the other Southern states, would pay a portion of tuition and room and board for...

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