An Interview with Fred D. Gray
Published in 2015 Alabama Super Lawyers magazine
By Steve Knopper on April 29, 2015
Q: I know early in your career when you were considering going to law school, you were also in the process of becoming a preacher. When did you decide to do both?
A: I was born in 1930 in Montgomery, and grew up with very religious parents. My father died when I was 2, but my mother brought us up in the Free Church of Christ in Montgomery, which is still there. My mother told me I used to baptize cats and dogs and anything else I could get my fingers on. There was a boarding school in Nashville for African-American students affiliated with the Church of Christ, and our preacher, who was from Tennessee, suggested to my mother that I attend. At that time in Alabama, the two positions that black boys usually could think about that were very respectable were to be a preacher or a teacher. Or both.
I came back home to Montgomery and attended Alabama State College for Negroes; [now] it’s Alabama State University. I lived on the west side of Montgomery; State is on the east side. I had to use the public transportation system. I saw many of our people who were mistreated on the buses. I didn’t have any bad experiences myself.
I also recognized that everything in Montgomery at that time was completely segregated, and if a person of color had a cause of action against a white person, it was very little likelihood he would receive justice. There were no black lawyers there at the time. There was a family friend of ours whose name was E.D. Nixon, who was a civil rights worker—professionally, he was a Pullman car porter. He had been president of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP and its two conferences and branches. If a person had a racial problem, they would usually find Mr. Nixon, who would try to help them. He was having difficulty in finding lawyers.
I concluded people [should] have their souls saved, but they also should enjoy all of the rights and privileges provided in the Constitution. I made a secret that I kept secret for 40 years: I was going to finish college, go to somebody’s law school—not even apply to University of Alabama, because I knew I would not be admitted—finish law school, return to Alabama, take the bar exam, pass the bar exam and destroy everything segregated I could find.
Q: You were not allowed to go law school in Alabama and had to go out of state. Were you aware that this would be a barrier for you?
A: That was a generally known matter by African-Americans in the Southern states. The Southern states had come up with a plan as a part of separate-but-equal under Plessy v. Ferguson: Instead of admitting African-Americans to the historical white institutions, they would provide them with some assistance so that they could attend any other college and university where the course offered at the historical white institution was not offered at a historical black institution. All of the black institutions were aware of it, and they advised their students if they were interested in going off to graduate school or professional schools that were not offered under the traditional black schools, they could get some assistance from the state of Alabama.
Q: So you returned to Montgomery and you had this commitment, but how did you identify which battles to pick first?
A: I met Mrs. Rosa Parks, who lived about two blocks from the church I attended.
At the time I opened my office, Mrs. Parks and I established a closer relationship because she worked in a department store a block and a half from my office. She’d come to my office every day, five days a week. We would talk about youth, talk about segregation, we’d talk about the buses, talk about what [African-Americans] would do if they were requested to give up their seats. She was an active person involved in civil rights activities.
We had those conferences and were having them at the time that Claudette Colvin was arrested under similar circumstances to Mrs. Parks, but she did it nine months before. My first civil rights case was not Dr. King, not Rosa Parks, but Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old girl who was arrested on March 2, 1955. I represented her in juvenile court. They found her guilty of being a delinquent and placed her on unsupervised probation.
[Civil rights activist] Jo Ann Robinson and myself talked to city officials and the bus company officials at that time about Claudette’s case. They expressed they were sorry about what had happened; they didn’t think that would happen again. Jo Ann Robinson and the Women’s Political Council kept record of incidents that occurred on the buses. They didn’t just start then, because Jo Ann had a bad experience on the bus in 1948, so she had a real vested interest in trying to help solve the problem.
That opportunity presented itself Dec. 1, 1955. I talked with Mrs. Parks earlier that day, and I was out of town for a while that evening. When I got back, she’d been arrested, and she invited me to come over. She was arrested on Thursday, trial was on Monday, and she told me she wanted me to represent her.
Q: How did this affect your life and your family?
A: I had some phone calls; I didn’t have any bomb threats.
Jo Ann Robinson and I decided that the African-American community not only needed to defend Mrs. Parks, but we needed to solve the problems of buses in general. Most historians now say that was the beginning of not only the Montgomery bus boycott, that was the beginning of the civil rights movement.
Q: When was the first time you met Dr. King?
A: I don’t remember the exact date. I was admitted to practice on Sept. 7, 1954. Dr. King was installed as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in October. He did not come here to lead the civil rights movement. He was just out of school, just got married and came here. This was his first pastorage. He was destined to be the spokesman by Jo Ann Robinson that evening when we were planning the boycott. She knew he had abilities to speak.
Neither Jo Ann nor I could be out front on it because she worked for Alabama State, and if they had known, she would have been fired. She was fired anyway, but it was much later. If it had been known that a young lawyer out of law school was making the plans, I would have been disbarred. We planted the seeds and other people carried it out.
Q: As the Montgomery bus boycott unfolded, did it feel like it was going according to plan?
A: We wanted to do two things. We had Mrs. Rosa Parks’ case, which was going throughout the court system. We knew that if we won her case, all it would have done was simply found her not guilty. We would have still had the city ordinances and the state statutes on the books, which required segregation of the races on the buses. That’s why we filed [a federal case] Browder v. Gayle. It was going to take some time to go through all the appeals in all the courts. The question was how can we keep this together during that period of time, and the decision was made let’s try to keep them off of the buses.
So [Jo Ann] did a leaflet, which in effect said, “Another black woman has been arrested on the city buses. Her name is Rosa Parks. She is on trial Monday, December 5. Stay off buses.”
When we looked up Monday morning and found out there were basically no black people on the bus, we knew then that [the boycott] was a success.
Things worked out, but there were a lot of logistical matters and I had the privilege of representing Dr. King then on a day-to-day basis because he was the spokesman. I was the one who advised them on what legally we could do or could not do, or what we should or should not do.
Q: Tell me a little about where you were when Dr. King was assassinated. What do you remember about that day?
A: I recognized that there was a possibility that Dr. King would be assassinated. I was aware of the fact that he had been stabbed up in New York some time before. But you’d never be prepared for things like that. I realized we had lost a person; [I] also realized the struggle for equal rights will continue. He was in Memphis trying to help a group of people who needed help, just like in Montgomery. He was doing what he started doing, which was helping to solve problems.
Q: At what point did you feel like you were making progress?
A: What I did was took it one step at a time, try and try again. My job was to work on Mrs. Parks’ lawsuit, but I knew that she was going to be convicted, and I knew we were going to have to appeal it. I also knew along the way we were going to have to file the federal lawsuit. Right after that, I was selected to be the lawyer for the movement, and I wanted to do it.
I also realized the state of Alabama was going to have the best legal minds it could have, and that Fred Gray would be no competition for them. I heard about Thurgood Marshall; I asked [E.B. Nixon] how I could get in touch with Thurgood Marshall. I called Mr. Marshall during the second week of the bus boycott. I went up and established a working relationship with the NAACP and Legal Defense Fund that has lasted until now.
These events in Alabama were to deny people their constitutional rights. People knew I was involved and was working on civil rights cases and came to me. As each one came up, we worked on them from school desegregation to all of the others. I’ve been practicing for over 60 years and I’m the oldest—in terms of membership in the bar—of any black lawyer in the state, and probably have filed as many cases to desegregate various entities as any lawyer in the state.
Q: Cuba Gooding Jr. portrayed you in Selma. What did you think of his portrayal and the film overall?
A: I think he did an excellent job. The scriptwriter could have written more for him because I said and I did more. Two of the producers contacted me back in November and said they recognized the role I played in filing the lawsuit was far greater than the script that was written. They arranged for me to screen the movie before it was released. I think the film played a major role in letting people know the difficulties that African-Americans and other minorities had in this country in order to get the right to vote. What happened in Selma was just one small community; we had similar situations all over the South and in many other parts of the country.
I’m happy the movie has come out. What I’ve said to the producers who contacted me is: I think it’s very important, the speeches were important, the marches were important throughout the civil rights movement, [but] you can’t have court orders unless you have lawyers who will file lawsuits. I told them that I would like to see, at some point, a movie made showing the role the law, lawyers, plaintiffs and judges have played in the civil rights movement. You go back and look at every other civil rights activity from Brown v. Board of Education, to the desegregation of the school cases, to Plessy v. Ferguson, it’s the court orders that did it.
Q: What do we still need to do today along these lines?
A: The disparity between the majority and the minorities is still alive, from health care to employment to housing to criminal justice. I tell people all the time, if you look close enough there are signs that too many decisions in this country are being made based on race.
It’s not going to go away by itself. We’ve got to come up with a plan. You’ve got to have a plan, and you’ve got to execute it.
It will take massive help to correct it, help from the federal, state, local government, institutions of higher learning, businesses and corporations, fraternities in society, religious organizations. Racism in this country is deeply ingrained and in order to get rid of it, it’s going to take cooperation of all the people to do it. And we never do that, and it’s going to take us all individually and collectively to do it. So the struggle for equal justice continues.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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