Alabama Congresswoman Terri Sewell has to be wrong. The letter she sent Wednesday to President Joe Biden asking that Tuskegee attorney Fred Gray Sr. receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom must have been sent in error.
Because surely there’s no way that Fred Gray hasn’t received the Medal of Freedom yet.
I know Sewell doesn’t make many mistakes, but that simply can’t be true. It can’t be true that Gray is behind the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Devin Nunes, Jim Jordan, Richard Petty and Bear Bryant. I mean, make whatever arguments you’d like for those guys, but they ain’t no Fred Gray.
Did any of those guys manage to get Martin Luther King Jr. acquitted of tax evasion by an all-white jury in Alabama in 1960 at the height of the Civil Rights Movement?
Because Fred Gray did that.
Did any of them represent Rosa Parks after her infamous arrest on a Montgomery bus, and also help plan and orchestrate the Montgomery Bus Boycott?
Because Fred Gray did that, too.
Did any of them file and argue the lawsuit that led to the desegregation of Alabama’s colleges and universities?
Because, yep, Fred Gray did that, as well.
What about … did any of them represent Vivian Malone and James Hood, ensuring they could get past George Wallace as he stood in the schoolhouse door?
Yeah, he did that, too.
What about winning the first-ever voting rights case for a group of Tuskegee teachers — any of them do that?
Because Gray did.
Look, I could go on and on and on like this for quite some time because very few people have changed America more than Fred Gray. You could almost pick any civil rights case from 1955 to 1975, and you’d very likely find Gray as the attorney of record.
He was King’s personal attorney for years, helping him successfully navigate a never-ending maze of legal issues. He was Parks’s attorney. He rep’d Black teachers and Black students. He defended the NAACP.
It was Gray who filed and won the lawsuit that gave marchers the right to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and march all the way to Montgomery — a march that ended with the Voting Rights Act.
Heck, without Gray, there wouldn’t have been a Bus Boycott. Not only did he help plan the whole thing and defend Parks, but he also defended Claudette Colvin in a prior case that led to law changes regarding racial segregation on the buses.
He successfully fought off the state of Alabama when it attempted to outright ban the NAACP from operating in the state.
And it was Gray who, in the 1970s, defended the participants of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, winning a $10 million verdict and getting a formal apology for those participants and their families from then-President Bill Clinton. (That verdict also dramatically altered the way government studies were performed and documented.)
Gray told me once during an interview that it was his goal coming out of law school to “fight segregation everywhere I could.”
“I didn’t want to just desegregate the buses in Montgomery,” he said. “I wanted to desegregate everything.”
And, dammit, he pretty much has.
Which is why it’s patently absurd that Gray hasn’t received every honor and medal that can be handed out for helping to make America a better, fairer country.
In her letter to Biden, Sewell says of Gray:
“As a Black lawyer and as Alabama’s first Black Congresswoman, I am a direct beneficiary of Gray’s lifelong work in the fight for justice, inclusion and equity for all. His litigation in groundbreaking cases like Browder v. Gayle can be seen as not only directly responsible for integrating institutions in Alabama, but all across America. An iconic figure and pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement, I can think of few people more deserving of the Presidential Medal of Freedom than Fred Gray.”
Gray changed the world for Sewell and millions of other Black Americans, and he made America a much, much better place for all of us.
And like Sewell, I can’t think of anyone more deserving of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.