Despite an early morning fire that raged through his Tuskegee, Ala. office three days earlier, Fred Gray Sr., renowned civil rights attorney, addressed an audience of 250 at the YWCA Heart-to-Heart Racial Justice Breakfast on Feb. 13 at the Montgomery Inn Banquet Center.
Gray's personal mission to "destroy everything segregated" upon returning to Montgomery, Ala. in 1954 propelled him to the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement.
"That was my personal, private commitment," Gray said.
Had he publicly declared his intentions, his chances for his success would have been slim, he said. African-Americans who aspired to become attorneys in Alabama left the state because of legislation barring them from law schools. Although many were able to earn law degrees, a number of complex roadblocks were in place to prevent them from practicing, according to his biography, Bus Ride to Justice.
In 1954 Gray earned his law degree at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and a law license from the state of Ohio. Six weeks later, he passed the bar exam in Alabama. Upon his return to Montgomery, he was one of two black attorneys in the entire city.
Among the benchmark cases that Gray handled was the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
"He broke down Jim Crow laws and set the precedent for laws all over the country and all over the world," said Jan Michele Kearney-Lemon, event co-chair and a member of the YWCA Racial Justice Committee.
Speaking to the YWCA, Gray dispelled the popularly held belief that Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat to a white man led to the integration of public transportation. Nine months prior to Parks' arrest, the same thing had happened to 15-year old Claudette Colvin, according to Gray.
"Had there been no Claudette Colvin in Montgomery, we may not have had a Rosa Parks," he said. "(Colvin) gave us the moral courage to move forward."
Gray urged the audience to recognize that the struggle for racial equality is far from over.
"If we lose, then all of the struggles Dr. King and others gave their lives for would have been in vain," he said.
He discussed economic disparities, including the growing gap between middle-class and working-poor African Americans as an example of new issues to be addressed.
"We have a serious problem in this country — are we going to preserve what we have, or are we going to lose it?" Gray said. "The consequences of 365 years of slavery and segregation have not changed, though legislation from the Civil Rights Era has been enacted."
Gray also discussed the need for diversity to be embraced nationwide and urged the multi-racial audience to make a personal commitment to incorporate diversity within their own lives. He cautioned that many laws, corporate policies and social mores are still based upon misperceptions of race.
"I think that we need to realize that, number one, racism is strong," he said. "It still exists, and too many decisions are being made based upon race."
A man in the audience asked how changes could be made via the judicial system or political pressure.
"The problem is massive," Gray said. "It will take every facet of society to eliminate racism. History talks about the demonstrations, but leaves out the lawsuits which impacted systemic change. The courts alone are not the answer, but it is needed. Demonstrations alone are not the answer, but is needed as well."
Retired Hamilton County Municipal Judge William A. McClain said Gray's message is important for young people.
"Mr. Gray is a great icon and civil rights leader," he said. "Young black men and women need to follow in his footsteps. Just like he's paid his dues, young people need to pay theirs. I'm 91 years of age and I still give back." ©