Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and John Lewis are three of the most recognizable faces of the civil rights movement and have become memorable icons in American history.
A major reason why they are such distinguished figures is because a young attorney named Fred Gray, now 90 years old, was behind the scenes representing them in the court of law.
It’s time — the time is way overdue, actually — to recognize Gray’s vital role in matters of unity, justice and equality with the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
As a result of the year-long Montgomery bus boycott where King and Parks were in the spotlight, the U.S. Supreme Court declared bus segregation in Alabama and Montgomery unconstitutional (Browder v. Gayle). Because of Gray’s lawsuit, protesters including King and Lewis were allowed to finish the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965 after the horrific events of “Bloody Sunday.”
Gray, a Church of Christ preacher as well as a renowned civil rights attorney, won numerous court cases involving the integration of public schools in Alabama. The 1967 verdict of Lee v. Macon County Board of Education ordered all Alabama public schools to comply with desegregation.
Gray also represented participants who were part of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, a U.S. government study from 1932 to 1972 in which African American men were purposely left untreated with syphilis to examine their symptoms and side effects. In 1975, the settlement awarded the survivors and heirs of the deceased $10 million.
In addition to Gray’s vast achievements as an attorney, he has made a long-lasting impact within Churches of Christ by preaching the Gospel, acting as a unifier and maintaining the humble heart of a servant.
Gray was one of the famous Black traveling evangelist Marshall Keeble’s “boy preachers” and is an alumnus of the now-closed Nashville Christian Institute, where Keeble served as president.
Gray later served as minister for the Holt Street Church of Christ in Montgomery. In 1974, he was instrumental in merging Black and White congregations to form the Tuskegee Church of Christ, where he has served as minister and elder. On a personal note, Gray performed the marriage ceremony of my parents at the Tuskegee church; they just recently celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is bestowed upon an individual who has made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public and private endeavors.”
President John F. Kennedy established this prestigious award in 1963. Recipients through the years have included Colin Powell, Helen Keller, Cesar Chavez and Gray’s own client, Rosa Parks.
Fred David Gray is most worthy of this esteemed honor. He has spent his life largely in the background defending the matters of justice and equality of both prominent figures in the limelight and everyday people who may feel powerless and voiceless.
Gray’s track record of consistency, integrity, grace and humility reaches far beyond the recognition of the president of the United States.
It goes all the way up to God Almighty who is writing down his humble servant’s good works and deeds in the Book of Life (Revelation 20:12, NKJV).
TRINDI G. MITCHELL is a member of The Christian Chronicle’s Editorial Board. She attends the Henry Street Church of Christ in Gadsden, Ala., and is a Sunday school teacher, writer and mother of two children. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.