Fred Gray was born in Montgomery, Alabama in 1930, as the youngest of 5 children. His father died when he was 2. Growing up, he thought he would become a minister and attended a church-related high school. While he had a lot of talent as a religious leader, one of his teachers encouraged him to pursue a legal degree because he could do more for his people.
Fred got a law degree from Case Western because no Alabama law schools would admit African Americans. He returned to Alabama. He needed the endorsements of five lawyers in Alabama to sit for the bar exam. There were fewer than 5 black lawyers in Alabama, but several white lawyers stepped forward to support him.
After passing the bar exam, no one would hire him. He set up his own office and became active with the NAACP. He started getting referrals for civil rights cases. He brought cases protesting Jim Crow practices. The NAACP was prohibited from operating in Alabama, so Fred was the lead attorney in many groundbreaking cases.
Some of his legal work included:
- Winning due process rights for university students
- Overturning discrimination in voting districts
- Integrating state universities
- Desegregating public schools
- Protecting demonstrators
- Authorizing the Selma-to-Montgomery march
Efforts were made to stop him outside of the courtroom since he was so successful in winning cases. He was indicted for bringing civil rights lawsuits. He was drafted to serve in the Army. Neither attempt was successful.
When it was revealed that a number of African American males were duped into participating in a study of the effects of untreated syphilis, Fred filed and won a lawsuit for 72 out of the 399 participants still living. The treatment of syphilis was well known at the time of the study and the deaths were needless. As a result of the lawsuit, the federal government implemented procedures of persons participating in research studies.
Fred Gray was honored with a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2022. While Fred has been recognized for his tireless fight for human rights, he remains a hidden hero for most Americans today. Ironically, the street where Fred grew up was called Jefferson Davis Avenue. In 2021, the name was changed to Fred King Avenue, but the name change is still under contention because of the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act. As Fred said in an interview: “We have to realize racism is not going to go away by itself.”
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“Racism isn’t born, folks, it’s taught. I have a two-year-old son. You know what he hates? Naps! End of list.” – Dennis Leary (actor/comedian)