Civil rights leader’s message for our time
By Lou Fancher
During the Civil Rights Movement, attorney and preacher Fred Gray practiced patience, peace and unflagging activism, which still resonate today.
Gray brings his “Where do we go from here?” message Saturday to the Bay Area as featured speaker at the Barbara Lee and Elihu Harris Lecture Series at Oakland Marriott City Center.
Patience was the strategy Gray used in the early 1950s, when he left his home in Montgomery, Alabama, a state where black students were barred from entering law school, to attend Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
He earned his degree in 1954 and returned to open a law office in his hometown, determined to eliminate public school segregation in the state. A dedication to peaceful protest and activism were key tactics as Gray tackled civil rights issues beyond education institution reforms.
In 1955, he successfully served as lawyer to Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin and the Montgomery Improvement Association during the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Defending Martin Luther King Jr. on tax evasion charges in 1960, Gray argued and won cases that allowed the Selma to Montgomery March to proceed (depicted by Cuba Gooding Jr. in the 2014 film “Selma”).
He earned financial compensation and apology for the survivors of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study; and won a positive ruling in Lee vs. Macon County Board of Education, the 1967 case that directed public schools, colleges and universities to comply with existing desegregation laws.
“I have filed as many lawsuits regarding segregation as has any lawyer that’s living now,” the 85-year-old Gray said in a phone interview from his law office in Tuskegee, Alabama.
But while regarding it as his responsibility to file lawsuits that seek quality education and “destroy everything he can” that violates people’s civil rights, Gray said he was deeply troubled by the courts’ and government’s failure to enforce the laws.
“What good is it if you have laws but not quality education?” he asked.
“Young people have to use their better skills and better education than I have and look at where we are. Don’t expect those of us who removed the evil barriers 60 years ago to come up with solutions. Young people need to come up with those solutions,” Gray said.
The first problem is avoidance. “This country has never really faced up to solving the race problem. It’s so ingrained. It’s not going to go away by itself. It started when we brought slaves here. It’s going to take every conceivable form of action if we’re ever going to face up to it and solve it,” he said.
Asked if the pinpoint focus people had during the 1955 bus boycott or the broader ambitions of today’s Black Lives Matter movement are more effective, Gray said, “It doesn’t have to be either/or. See a problem in your community, have a good idea to solve it — that person should be free to work on it. There’s nothing magic.”
Gray said he is “old school” and knows from experience that no one action, person or group will bring change. Instead, what is needed are frank conversations about ongoing racism, student and citizen peaceful protests, legal and legislative action —and three lessons his mother instilled in Gray and his four siblings.
“She told us we could be successful if we did three things: keep Christ first, stay in school, stay out of trouble. Don’t get involved in the criminal justice system. I tried to live like that,” Gray said.
Roy Wilson, executive director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center that hosts the community lectures and Gray’s visit, said political change has always come from the people.
“Change occurs through simultaneous development of legislative, judicial and executive power. This is why street-heat, elections and developing legislation and laws are important. All struggles of the people are interdependent,” he said.
In Oakland, it is likely that Gray will employ the skills he refined as a preacher of the Church of Christ. At a recent appearance in Kansas, he left the stage to get close to the audience.
“I challenged them to see a problem and be willing to solve it. The problems might not be racial. I told them they’re the most important persons there. I had them stand up and told them they need to stand up for what is right. If they can conceive, they can believe. If they can believe, they can achieve. Look out, world: Yes, I can,” he said.