Opening remarks.

AuthorGray, Fred
PositionFaulkner University Thomas Goode Jones School of Law Jones Law Review Symposium on the Voting Rights Act of 1965

I am delighted to be here with members of the faculty, students, and lawyers. Let me initially express my surprise to see this many persons who are interested in coming to a seminar on this topic, but I am honored that the sponsors of this symposium--the Ernestine Sapp Chapter of BLSA and the Jones Law Review--requested my presence. Incidentally, Ernestine Sapp is here today. I believe she is the first African American graduate of this law school to be admitted to the Alabama State Bar. We are thankful to the Law Review and the law school for deciding to name this event the Fred Gray, Sr. Civil Rights Symposium. I guess one way you know you are getting old is when people start naming things after you.

I am very delighted that they are having this symposium on the Voting Rights Act of 1965, because that Act is responsible for thousands of minorities being able to serve effectively in legislative bodies across this nation. There are certain prerogatives that exist when a symposium is named after you, when you have been practicing law in the same community for years, and when you are a member of the Board of Trustees of the University where you are speaking. Having this symposium named after me carries along with it certain privileges and one of those privileges is that I can select the topic and discuss whatever I want. That means I am not going to talk about what I have been assigned.

I am going to talk about the Voting Rights Act, but I am going to talk about the historical perspective, because you young people and many of you old ones have no idea what African Americans have gone through over the years to be where we are today. We understand where we are, and there are people who think we have arrived. Even many persons of color who occupy positions do not realize why they are there and how they got there. Sometimes the way they act in those positions makes you wonder whether they should be there, but they are. So I want to give you a little of the history of why this Act is important.

It did not just happen. It did not happen as a result of the Selma to Montgomery March as some people think. Rather, there had been problems in this city. I was born here on December 14, 1930, and I know something about those problems. I represented a client nine months before Rosa Parks on a case involving similar circumstances. The problems to be solved by the bus boycott did not start on December 1. The problems to be solved with the Selma to Montgomery March, which certainly resulted in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, (2) did not start in 1965.

As you know, "We the People" in the Preamble to the United States Constitution, as originally adopted, has not changed. The "We the People" did not include people who looked like me. The drafters of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were not concerned about the rights of minorities. Particularly, they were not concerned about the rights of blacks. They were solely concerned about white Americans, and I might add that they really were only concerned about white male Americans. You white females could not vote either until an Amendment to the Constitution was adopted. (3) It became necessary to adopt the Amendments to the Constitution and to pass additional laws such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (4) in order for African Americans and other minorities to have any rights.

The Thirteenth Amendment was adopted so that slavery could be abolished. (5) The Fourteenth Amendment was adopted so that African Americans could be considered citizens, (6) and more white people obtained their constitutional rights through the Fourteenth Amendment than blacks. (7) Then, of course, we had the Fifteenth Amendment that prohibited the denial of the right to vote based on color. (8) If this country had been true to its creed, it would have solved the problem by the Fourteenth Amendment. There would have been no need to even worry about the Voting Rights Act of 1965 or any other later act, but we all know that did not happen.

We also know that the wrong to be corrected preceded the adoption of the Constitution. It really started when the first slave landed in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. African Americans are the only ethnic group in this country who came to this country without their consent. We were brought here as slaves. You may even think that segregation in public schools, and attempting to get away with it, originated in the South, but the first desegregation cases in public education occurred in Massachusetts in Roberts v. City of Boston. (9) Even in that case, the Supreme Court of Massachusetts indicated that a state could segregate people in education based on race. (10)

It was the Dred Scott decision in 1857, which indicated that a black man could not even sue in a federal court, because he was not a citizen at all. (11) So, the Fourteenth Amendment...

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