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Civil Rights icon Fred Gray to receive prestigious ABA medal

Gray played a crucial role in many of the biggest moments in civil rights history.

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Civil Rights icon Fred Gray will be honored in August with the highest honor given out by the American Bar Association, the ABA Medal.

Gray was described by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as “the chief counsel” of the civil rights movement. Gray will accept the award at the ABA’s Annual Meeting in Denver in August.

Gray played a crucial role in many of the biggest moments in civil rights history in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. He represented Rosa Parks and was the chief legal strategist during the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 and 1956. He represented the marchers during the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights marches of 1965. And he represented the victims of the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study, obtaining a settlement for the survivors in 1975 and an apology from President Bill Clinton, on the government’s behalf, in 1997.

President Joe Biden awarded Gray the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in July 2022. During the ceremony, Biden called Gray “one of the most important civil rights lawyers in our history… An ordained minister, he imbued a righteous calling that touched the soul of our nation.”

“Fred Gray is a giant in the American legal profession,” ABA President Deborah Enix-Ross said. “As a pioneering lawyer and as a courageous civil rights leader, he is a role model for many. Fred Gray, a longtime ABA member, embodies everything that our members aspire to be.”

Gray’s motto was “to destroy everything segregated I could find.” His legal efforts led to the integration of the University of Alabama and Auburn University. In 1967, he won a court order that integrated all Alabama educational institutions that were not already under court orders.

In 1970, Gray was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives, becoming one of first two first Black Alabama state legislators since Reconstruction. He served in the legislature for 44 years, until 2015.

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“I am honored, appreciative and humbled that the ABA Board of Governors has selected me as the 2023 recipient of the ABA Medal. It is a great honor to be recognized by my peers,” Gray said. “I am honored because the ABA stated it is doing so for ‘your conspicuous service in the cause of American jurisprudence.’ During my 69 years of civil rights practice, I have destroyed racial segregation wherever I found it. I am appreciative because it comes late in life, at the age of 92, while I still can enjoy it. I am humbled to be added to this list of great legal minds and leaders.”

Gray still practices law with the firm Gray, Langford, Sapp, McGowan, Gray, Gray & Nathanson in Tuskegee and Montgomery. He was president of the National Bar Association in 1985 and became the first Black president of the Alabama State Bar in 2002. He has been an ABA member since 1959.

The ABA Medal is bestowed upon a lawyer for “exceptionally distinguished service … to the cause of American jurisprudence.” Past recipients include lawyers who have served on the Supreme Court of the United States, including Chief Justices Warren E. Burger and Charles Evans Hughes, and Associate Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., Sandra Day O’Connor, Thurgood Marshall, William J. Brennan, Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Tom Clark and Felix Frankfurter.

Jacob Holmes is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can reach him at [email protected]

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