Trailblazing civil rights lawyer Fred Gray is still fighting

The arrest of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 are cornerstones of the civil rights movement. And the lawyer who represented those plaintiffs in the lawsuit that is considered a hallmark of the American judicial system was attorney Fred Gray. 

Gray's dedication to civil rights began well before taking the bar exam. He said that he pledged he would "take it, pass it, become a lawyer and destroy everything segregated I could find."

Destroying everything segregated he could find didn't end in Montgomery. In Selma, when a young John Lewis and the Freedom Riders were beaten and arrested at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on what we know as Bloody Sunday, Gray was called in. Gray remembers that he went to Selma that same night, and "they retained me to represent them."

He also successfully defended his friend Martin Luther King Jr. on tax-evasion charges in front of an all-white jury.

In 1932 in Tuskegee, Alabama, the U.S. government began a study of the effects of syphilis on black men without telling any of the men the truth that the research was all a hoax.

And in 1974, Gray successfully represented survivors and the heirs of the participants in a landmark case that resulted in a multimillion-dollar settlement.

But the study would also fuel widespread distrust by African Americans of federal government health initiatives. That distrust continues to this day with the ongoing COVID-19 vaccination effort.

And Gray points out one has nothing to do with the other.

"If they don't want to take the vaccine, then not take it," he said. "But don't say you're not taking it because of what the federal government did in the Tuskegee syphilis study."

A recent Pew Survey showed that 61% of African Americans now say they will get or have gotten the COVID-19 vaccine, which is up sharply from 42% in November.

Gray is now 90 and still practices law in Alabama.

How does the trailblazer want history to remember him?

"I'd like for them to remember me as one of those lawyers who saw problems that existed in his community and did everything he could to eradicate those problems," Gray said.

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