The courage of civil rights lawyers: Fred Gray and his colleagues.

Author:Rubinowitz, Leonard S.

"You taught us courage--to be brave enough to do what we believe is right--to know that fear is natural, but not to let it stop us from doing what we must." (1)

CONTENTS INTRODUCTION I. FRED GRAY AND HIS COLLEAGUES A. Fred Gray 1. The Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955) 2. NAACP v. Alabama 3. Gomillion v. Lightfoot (1960) 4. Dr. King's Perjury Trial (1960) 5. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1960) 6. School Desegregation Litigation 7. Selma Voting Rights Movement (1965) 8. Tuskegee Syphilis Study (1973) B. Arthur Shores C. Clifford Durr D. Robert Carter E. Constance Baker Motley II. THE CHALLENGES AND THE COURAGE A. Physical Dangers B. Legal Threats C. Economic Costs D. Social Costs E. Psychological Burdens: Stress. Anxiety, Fear, Grief and Sadness CONCLUSION INTRODUCTION

The modern Civil Rights Movement played out on a very public stage, usually in the form of non-violent direct action in places such as the streets and highways, lunch counters, buses and bus stations, and even the Lincoln Memorial. Similarly, much of the opposition to nonviolent direct action took place in those public settings. That made it obvious that civil rights leaders and activists had great courage to confront the system of Jim Crow. The courage of Civil Rights leaders and their followers is well known. They faced dangers up to and including death at the hands of segregationists seeking to preserve white supremacy.

In contrast, civil rights lawyers operated largely behind the scenes, in the much less public confines of the federal and state courts. They are known mostly for their successes in the judicial arena. (2) They rarely participated in demonstrations, sit-ins. freedom rides, or marches, so they did not encounter the fire hoses, attacking police dogs, tear gas, and other tactics leveled at direct action activists.

Nevertheless, the lawyers' lesser visibility did not protect them from the many dangers of doing civil rights work. Segregationists recognized that the lawyers posed a threat to the racially discriminatory system. So, they included the lawyers in their counter-movement, seeking to eliminate the lawyers, in hopes of undermining and defeating the Civil Rights Movement. (3) As a result, the lawyers and their families also faced significant risks. Their roles called for great courage. (4) This Article brings that aspect of the lawyers' participation center stage.

This symposium pays richly deserved tribute to Alabama's Fred Gray, one of the most important lawyers of the modern Civil Rights Movement. (5) Fred Gray and his colleagues demonstrated exceptional courage in the challenges they faced, the risks they endured, and the costs they and their families paid to do the critical work to advance the cause. For present purposes, that courage can be divided into two kinds. (6) Professional courage involves the willingness and ability to navigate a racist state legal system run by segregationists deeply committed to protecting and sustaining the pervasive racial segregation and discrimination including the police, opposing counsel such as prosecutors, judges, and all-white juries. (7) Civil rights lawyers represented their clients in high-stakes matters, with a system stacked against them and their clients. (8) This was particularly the case during the modern Civil Rights Movement in the South. (9) Professional courage went along with the representation of those unpopular activists and unpopular causes.

However, the focus here will be on the personal courage that the lawyers exhibited outside their work within the legal system. It is one thing to face a racist system in court, the traditional setting for resolving legal disputes. It is quite another to encounter and withstand extraordinary extra-legal and legal attempts to remove them from the arena. Alabama of the 1950s and the following decades is a case in point. Civil rights lawyers on the frontlines had great dedication and commitment to the movement there. They stayed the course even though they and their families--spouses, children, and other family members--faced a multitude of efforts to terminate their involvement in the movement. (10) They faced physical dangers that included house bombings and shots fired at their homes, as well as death threats. Also, officials used legal and administrative strategies designed to remove lawyers from the arena, including prosecutions for barratry and an effort to draft one lawyer into the military. Moreover, lawyers in private practice encountered two kinds of economic pressures--loss of clients that threatened the sustainability of their practice and efforts to get them to forego civil rights work in return for profitable legal business. The lawyers and their families also endured social costs, which included both ostracism and enforced isolation for their own protection. Finally, their work had psychological tolls, which included anger, fear and anxiety, and grief and sadness. Some incidents and experiences were quite traumatic, especially for family members, and required great resilience to overcome them. (11)

Like the activists, the lawyers continued to bring their talent and their commitment to the movement notwithstanding the toll it took on them and their families. (12) They showed the courage and resilience to stay on track despite their adversaries' best efforts to undermine them. Their challenges came from the public sector--elected officials, prosecutors, and the police--as well as private individuals and white supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan.

This Article focuses on the courage of Fred Gray and his colleagues in Alabama during the modern Civil Rights Movement. Gray was born and raised in the state and returned there after law school to "destroy everything segregated [he] could find." (13) He made the state his permanent home. (14) His civil rights career provides the context for this examination of the courageous aspects of this coterie of distinguished lawyers. Gray and the several colleagues discussed here faced more severe personal challenges than the larger group of colleagues. In that sense, they are not representative of that larger group. The lawyers discussed were particularly prominent, persistent, and visible from early in the movement. They represented a particular threat to the racial status quo in Alabama, and they paid a heavy price for that. But none of those efforts to remove Fred Gray or his colleagues succeeded.

Part I introduces Fred Gray and the several key colleagues whose careers included many personal challenges and displays of great courage in response to them. Those lawyers include Arthur Shores (Birmingham), Clifford Durr (Montgomery), Robert Carter (New York: NAACP Legal Defense Fund and NAACP), and Constance Baker Motley (New York: NAACP Legal Defense Fund). This is a diverse group, by race, gender and location--local lawyers in Alabama, as well as those who came down from the North to challenge the Jim Crow system in the state. They were all prominent lawyers who worked extensively with Fred Gray, often becoming personal friends as well as important professional colleagues. (15) The small group of lawyers highlighted here stands in for a number of other lawyers who worked with Fred Gray over the years. (16)

Part II identifies the personal challenges those lawyers faced and provides accounts of specific incidents they encountered. (17) The dangers were generally greater for the local lawyers, who were more visible, more accessible, and more vulnerable than those coming from the North. The most serious challenges involved physical dangers to both persons and property. Rarely does representing clients, even unpopular ones, call for physical courage; but these lawyers needed and displayed exceptional amounts of it. (18) Other challenges to them and their families included legal, economic, social, and psychological ones. Often these kinds of risks interacted with each other. Bombings caused great fear and anxiety. Ostracism sometimes led to depression. The diversity of the lawyers also led to some differences in the challenges. Local lawyers, especially Arthur Shores, faced bombings and shootings, while northern lawyers faced anger and hostility as "outside agitators." (19)

The Conclusion relates that history to the dangers facing civil rights lawyers in the 21st century. It suggests that the need for personal courage continues, as the lawyers still encounter significant challenges and threats.


    In addition to Fred Gray himself, this Part introduces several lawyers who worked with him on civil rights matters in Alabama. These lawyers stand in for the larger numbers of Gray's colleagues. They are among the most prominent lawyers among the larger group. They also suggest the diversity of Gray's colleagues--in race, gender, and location. Moreover, they each worked with Fred Gray extensively, over a number of years. Finally, they were among those who faced the most difficult challenges and therefore demonstrated the greatest personal courage. (20)

    Fred Gray was such a central figure in Alabama that his colleagues included virtually all the civil rights lawyers in the state as well as those who came there from the North. (21) On the rare occasion that Gray was not actively involved in an Alabama movement, his colleagues were. (22) This examination of Fred Gray and his colleagues considers lawyers who faced personal challenges, showed the courage to overcome them, and played a critical role in the modern Civil Rights Movement in Alabama.

    1. Fred, Gray

      Fred Gray was born and raised in Montgomery and graduated from its historically Black Alabama State College. (23) Gray would have attended law school in Alabama, but the University of Alabama still did not admit Blacks in the early 1950s. (24) When Gray left to attend Cleveland's Western Reserve Law School, he made a secret vow to return to his home state and use his legal training to "destroy...

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