Fred Gray receives Medal of Freedom
WASHINGTON — Fred Gray was meeting with the Alabama State…
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The two men were boys when they met. One, a preacher, would minister to churches for seven decades. The other, a preacher and attorney, would receive the highest civilian honor bestowed by the United States.
The preacher, Freeman Wyche, 92, served the Liberty City Church of Christ in Miami for more than 38 years. Attorney Fred D. Gray, 91, who represented Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and many other civil rights leaders, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House this past summer.
Related: Fred Gray receives Medal of Freedom
Wyche and Gray — 1948 graduates of the Nashville Christian Institute — shared the program of what organizers characterized as the school’s last alumni reunion dinner. Opened in the 1940s, NCI educated Black primary and secondary students from Churches of Christ in Tennessee and far beyond until its closure in 1967.
“This is one of the highest honors that has ever been afforded to me … to introduce my friend, my cohort and my … classmate,” Wyche said.
He introduced Gray, the evening’s guest of honor, before about 200 people at Nashville’s Schrader Lane Church of Christ, which hosted the recent dinner.
NCI alumni began gathering for reunions around 1978, said Harry Kellam, alumni president since 2016. The get-togethers were held every other year, mostly in Nashville but also in such places as Miami, Fla.; Valdosta, Ga.; Savannah, Ga.; Tuskegee, Ala.; and Cleveland, Ohio. The most recent previous gathering took place in 2018 at Lipscomb University. Over the years, the weekend events included a Saturday picnic, a Saturday dinner, Sunday morning worship and a “Down Memory Lane” session Sunday evening.
Explaining the decision to make this year’s reunion the last, Kellam observed that some alumni live far away, and fewer attend. “We’re just few in number and getting older,” said Kellam, who preached for the Eighth Avenue Church of Christ in Nashville until its closure about four years ago.
At one point, attendance hit 120, the alumni president said, but that number had dwindled to 40 to 45 — a figure threatened even more by the ongoing pandemic.
“We didn’t have enough people to respond to have a banquet,” Kellam said about this year’s initial planning. “We were just going to have a picnic, and we were going to worship together, eat together.”
Kellam credited his fellow 1963 alumnus Alvin Hinkle, a member of the Sunset Boulevard Church of Christ in West Columbia, S.C., with the idea to proceed with a dinner and make it a tribute to Gray.
Event coordinator for the banquet, Hinkle said the change in plans came about a month before the reunion. The organizers wanted to both celebrate Gray’s accomplishments and raise funds for the Tuskegee History Center, where Gray serves as board chairman and president.
“It’s either now or never in terms of the NCI reunion,” Hinkle added. “We thought this would be a good gesture … rather than just giving him honor with words.”
With the addition of a dinner to celebrate Gray, the guest list grew.
At the dinner, program guests talked about NCI leader and well-known African American preacher Marshall Keeble, reconciliation after the controversial 1967 closure of NCI and the struggle for racial justice championed so long by Gray.
According to Keeble biographer J.E. Choate, NCI opened in 1940, offering adult night classes before becoming an elementary and high school. Keeble became the school’s president.
NCI closed in 1967 when its majority-White board — with close ties to then-David Lipscomb College — decided to shut the doors. Enrollment had declined, and facilities were inadequate and salaries low.
The school’s liquidated assets, the board determined, would fund a scholarship for black students at David Lipscomb College — a school with a history of segregation.
The closure and the decision about proceeds drove a wedge between many Black members of Churches of Christ and the college, now Lipscomb University. Gray represented NCI constituents and Black church members in an unsuccessful lawsuit against the college over the closure.
It would take almost half a century to heal the wounds. The efforts at reconciliation reached a public milestone when Lipscomb bestowed an honorary doctorate of humane letters on Gray during a gala dinner at the 32nd Thomas H. Olbricht Christian Scholars’ Conference in 2012.
In 2016, Lipscomb renamed its Institute for Law, Justice and Society for Gray, who signed a memorandum of understanding that included Lipscomb establishing a Fred D. Gray Scholars program and collaborating to preserve and archive Gray’s legal and religious papers.
The alumni dinner program included L. Randolph Lowry, the former Lipscomb president instrumental in restoring relations with Gray, as well as current President Candice McQueen.
Now Lipscomb’s chancellor, Lowry spoke in personal terms of Gray’s “graciousness.” Lowry saw the clearest demonstration of Gray’s character not in the university wishing to grant him its highest academic honor but in the attorney’s response.
“The graciousness of that was not Lipscomb. The graciousness was Mr. Gray’s accepting that degree,” Lowry told the audience.
Current president McQueen spoke of her family’s admiration for Keeble, a famous Black evangelist who baptized an estimated 30,000 people before his 1968 death.
“He may have been one of the most influential preachers in my family’s history,” McQueen said, tracing the love for Keeble to her grandmother.
“She had said to God, ‘If I have a son, he’s going to be a preacher,’” McQueen recalled. The prayer granted, McQueen’s uncle was born, followed by her father 10 years later.
“She told me the story — as if it were yesterday, I can hear her,” McQueen said. “‘I want my two sons to be Church of Christ preachers, and they need to preach just like brother Keeble. They need to preach unity. They need to preach justice.’”
As closing speaker, Gray offered expressions of gratitude as well as encouragement to continue the struggle for justice.
“Let me talk to you about how grateful I am. It has taken 91 years for this to happen to me,” said Gray, expressing deep appreciation that his fellow alumni chose to honor him at their last dinner.
Gray shared key lessons from a lifetime of struggle for racial equality under the law.
“While we’ve made a substantial amount of progress, the struggle for equal justice continues. We need to recognize that racism and inequality are wrong and … should be corrected. That message needs to start at the top.”
“While we’ve made a substantial amount of progress, the struggle for equal justice continues. We need to recognize that racism and inequality are wrong and … should be corrected,” Gray said. “That message needs to start at the top.
“You’re going to have to come up with a plan,” Gray continued, recalling Parks and the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.
Problem identified, plan made and implementation begun, Gray urged personal participation in the fight. “When we become a part of executing the plan, then we’ll be on our way toward eliminating racism and inequality.”
Gray referred to a fellow civil rights leader whose name had come to mind earlier in the day as NCI alumni toured Nashville, visiting the site where their school had stood.
“We saw a street that was named after Rep. John Lewis, who has some relationship to education here, as I had some education here,” Gray said.
Lewis, a Democratic congressman from Georgia from 1987 to 2020, graduated from Nashville’s Fisk University in 1961.
Gray represented Lewis in legal actions following the future lawmaker’s participation as a Freedom Rider in 1961 to desegregate interstate transportation. Gray served as Lewis’ attorney again after he crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on “Bloody Sunday” in 1965.
The civil rights attorney spoke of an emotional conversation with Lewis shortly before his death from pancreatic cancer in 2020.
“We prayed, and we talked,” Gray said. Asking the congressman what he wished him to do, Lewis replied, “Keep going, keep pushing, and keep your record straight.”
To close the evening, Gray echoed Lewis.
“Keep going, keep pushing, keep the record straight — do it in a nonviolent manner,” Gray said, “and continue to do it until justice rolls down like mercy and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
NCI alumni reflected on what the school and the reunions had meant to them.
Kellam credited alumni devotion to the school to its small size and the shared experience of a time of social change.
“I think part of it has to do with just the fact that we came together,” he said, “and we were able to have a good Christian relationship in terms of the smallness and the Bible study and chapel.
Related: Marshall Keeble’s ‘boy preachers’ still baptizing and saving souls
“Marshall Keeble … was just a real father-like figure. He stayed there in the dormitory with us, and we all just kind of felt like a family,” Kellam added. “A lot of us were disappointed to know the school had closed … and I think that was part of what caused us to miss it more. … We didn’t anticipate it would go away.”
Alumna Pat Boatwright Ball attended NCI while her father, Otis H. Boatwright, was principal.
The final reunion made her sad.
“It’s almost like a loss of connection to reflect on the past,” said Ball, who has come to the biannual reunions for 20 years.
“Through the years … I don’t know whether we appreciated what we had. We really had a model of good Christian education,” she added. “I’ve always reflected back on the fact that every situation that I have been in … it always comes back to basic principles that I learned there.”
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