Black, white and Gray
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Forty-five years ago, civil rights attorney and…
Fred Gray is headed to the White House — again.
A renowned civil rights attorney, the Church of Christ minister and elder is one of 17 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. President Joe Biden will present the award next week to Gray and other recipients, including gymnast Simone Biles and actor Denzel Washington.
The honorees “have overcome significant obstacles to achieve impressive accomplishments in the arts and sciences, dedicated their lives to advocating for the most vulnerable among us, and acted with bravery to drive change in their communities, and across the world,” the White House said in a news release.
Gray was the first civil rights attorney for Martin Luther King Jr. He defended Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks, both charged with disorderly conduct for refusing to move to the back of segregated city buses in the 1950s.
His previous trip to the White House was the result of a different court case.
In a phone interview with The Christian Chronicle, Gray instantly recalled the date — May 16, 1997. That’s when President Bill Clinton, standing in the East Room of the White house, 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.
Related: Black, white and Gray
Gray, a longtime 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.
During the 1997 apology, Clinton thanked Gray “for fighting this long battle all these long years” and described the attorney as “a great friend of freedom.”
In recent years, members of Churches of Christ across the nation have called for Gray’s name to be added to the list of Presidential Medal recipients. Last March the Chronicle joined their ranks, publishing in an editorial that “it’s time to bestow America’s highest civilian honor on the renowned civil rights attorney and preacher.” Readers interested in showing support for Gray were asked to write letters to President Biden and to send them to the office of U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.
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. “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 …”
Sewell collected the letters of support and nominated Gray for the award. In a news release, Gray thanked “the many organizations and persons from all walks of life” 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.,” Gray said in the news release. “We have made substantial progress, but the struggle for the elimination of racism and for equal justice continues.
“I hope this award will encourage other Americans to do what they can to complete the task so that all American citizens will be treated the same, equally and fairly, in accordance with the Constitution.”
Speaking with the Chronicle, Gray focused on one outcome of his 1997 visit to the White House — the establishment of the Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center.
Now known as the Tuskegee History Center, the museum is the dream of Gray and Herman Shaw, a survivor of the syphilis study. The center celebrates “the rich history of the entire community,” according to its website, and recognizes “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, help us keep that museum open,” Gray told the Chronicle.
Also receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom next week will be Gabrielle Giffords, a former U.S. House member from Arizona. Giffords was severely wounded when she was shot in the head in January 2011 during a constituent event in Tucson. That attack killed six people, including Dorwan Stoddard, 76, a member of the Mountain Avenue Church of Christ. After the attack, Giffords founded an organization dedicated to ending gun violence.
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