Gray deserves Presidential Medal of Freedom
Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and John Lewis are…
WASHINGTON — Fred Gray was meeting with the Alabama State Bar Association at a retreat in Destin, Fla., when his phone rang.
The famed civil rights attorney, still practicing law at age 91, answered. It was his son.
“He told me that he had somebody on the phone who wanted to talk with me,” Gray said. “Believe it or not, it was the president.”
Days later, Gray stood in the East Room of the White House as President Joe Biden placed a star-shaped medallion, surrounded by tiny eagles, around his neck.
Gray, a longtime minister and elder for Churches of Christ, was one of 17 recipients of the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“When Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin and John Lewis and other giants of our history needed a lawyer for their fight for freedom, you know who they called? They called a guy named Fred Gray. That’s who they called,” Biden told the room of family members, political dignitaries and reporters. Near Gray sat fellow honorees, including gymnast Simone Biles and former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
“When Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin and John Lewis and other giants of our history needed a lawyer for their fight for freedom, you know who they called? They called a guy named Fred Gray. That’s who they called.”
Gray, the first civil rights attorney for Martin Luther King Jr., represented Colvin and Parks after they were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for refusing to move to the back of segregated Montgomery, Ala., city buses in the 1950s.
Gray’s “legal brilliance and strategy desegregated schools and secured the right to vote,” Biden said. As a minister, Gray “imbued a righteous calling that touched the soul of our nation.”
The award “has been a long time coming,” Gray told The Christian Chronicle in an interview after the ceremony. “I was a little reluctant until it happened. But it did happen, and I am very appreciative — and I am appreciative that the Lord had something to do with this also.”
Members of Churches of Christ across the nation called for Gray’s name to be added to the list of Presidential Medal recipients. In March 2021 the Chronicle published a column supporting the cause.
Gray “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,” wrote Trindi G. Mitchell, a member of the Chronicle’s editorial board.
Readers were asked to write letters to Biden and to send them to the office of U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala. Sewell collected the letters and nominated Gray for the award.
In a news release, Gray thanked the people and organizations who wrote letters on his behalf.
“This award means a great deal to me, an African-American civil rights lawyer who was born in the ghettos of Montgomery, Ala.,” he said. “We have made substantial progress, but the struggle for the elimination of racism and for equal justice continues.”
Speaking with the Chronicle, Gray talked about the central role faith has played in his life since childhood.
“Religion and the church were the first things other than my parents that I remember,” he said. “Church has played a major role in whatever I have done.”
As Biden draped the medal and blue ribbon around Gray’s neck, a speaker read a statement about Gray’s faith-fueled accomplishments:
“Risking his own safety, he helped secure voting rights, desegregate schools and win other battles for the soul of our nation.
“A patriarch of a family and a movement, Fred Gray is a lawyer by trade and a preacher at heart who follows the command to hate evil, love good and establish justice.”
It wasn’t Gray’s first trip to the White House. He previously visited the East Room on May 16, 1997. That’s when President Bill Clinton issued a formal apology for the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.
The study, conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, lasted for four decades and involved 600 Black men, 399 with syphilis. Many participants were the sons and grandsons of slaves and weren’t given treatment for the disease — or even told that they had the disease.
Gray, an elder for the Tuskegee Church of Christ, represented plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit, Pollard v. U.S. Public Health Service, in 1972. Gray secured a $10 million settlement and treatment for the 72 subjects still living of the original 399.
Clinton thanked Gray “for fighting this long battle all these long years” and described the attorney as “a great friend of freedom.”
The apology led to the creation of the Tuskegee History Center, a dream of Gray and Herman Shaw, a survivor of the syphilis study. According to its website, the center celebrates “the three cultural groups that have contributed to the shaping and reshaping of Macon County — Native Americans, European Americans and African Americans.”
“If people really want to help us,” Gray told the Chronicle, “help us keep that museum open.”
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