The Lawyer Most Responsible for Dismantling Segregation

This year marks forty years since Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat on a Montgomery City bus to a white man. Then, Alabama law required African American passengers to stand-up so that white riders could sit down when all seats were filled. Today, it is hard to imagine the Montgomery of 1955. Those were the dark days of segregation.

During segregation, Americans of African ancestry were subjected to some of the most degrading laws ever enacted by a civilized society. These laws dehumanized both white and non-white people alike. This was the way it had always been until Rosa Parks claimed her right to the seat she was riding in. The lawyer most responsible for insuring that Mrs. Parks constitutional rights were protected is Attorney Fred Gray. This courageous and brilliant young lawyer said he had one goal, “to destroy everything segregated that [he] could find. ”

Fred Gray’s autobiography, Bus Ride to Justice, recently published by Black Belt Press, is “the book” about the Civil Rights Movement. One would think that after forty years there would be little left to write about the movement sparked by the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956, however, one would be wrong. Mr. Gray has plenty to say that only the lawyer at the center of the movement could tell.

Bus Ride To Justice adds immensely to our literature about the Civil Rights Movement. In the book, Lawyer Gray chronicles his life from his birth in a shotgun house in West Montgomery on December 14, 1930 to pleading cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The Judgeship That Was Not To Be” is the chapter he devotes to the politics surrounding his 1979 failed nomination to the U. S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama by President Carter. Readers simply will not believe what they are reading. Mr. Gray holds nothing back. He writes freely about the tortuous process that ended with Myron H. Thompson becoming the judge that Fred Gray wanted to be.

Bus Ride to Justice describes a young man coming of age in our society at a time when we had two standards of justice; one for white men and one for everyone else…a time when Fred Gray rode Montgomery’s segregated buses to attend Alabama State College and to work at the Alabama Journal. Unable to attend law school at the then-segregated University of Alabama, young Fred Gray went north to Case Western Reserve Law School in Ohio. At 23, he graduated and returned to Alabama as a member of the Ohio Bar, passed the Alabama Bar, and opened his law office. At this point, he started his struggle to make good on his pledge to “destroy everything segregated that [he] could find.”

Careful readers will not be able to resist pondering some of the following dates and wondering at how the key players converged in Montgomery at the same time. In September 1, 1954, Martin Luther King, Jr., age 25, arrived in Montgomery to begin his pastorship at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Fourteen days later, Fred Gray, age 23, was admitted to practice law before the Alabama Bar. During the summer of 1955, Rosa Parks completed a racially integrated course of study at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. (Virginia Durr quotes, Miles Horton, director of Highlander in her book, Outside the Magic Circle, as saying that he felt that the integrated experience at the school encouraged [strengthened] Mrs. Parks during the boycott.) On November 7, 1955, Frank H. Johnson, age 36, became Federal District Judge in Montgomery. On December 1, 1956, Montgomery police arrested Rosa Parks, igniting the Civil Rights Movement.

The first time Mr. Gray went to the U.S. Supreme Court was in 1956 to argue the case that declared segregated seating on Montgomery buses unconstitutional. He was 25 years old at the time. In 1959, he was back at the Supreme Court where he successfully argued Gomillion v. Lightfoot. This case declared unconstitutional the state legislature’s redistricting plan that excluded all African Americans from the city limits of Tuskegee. These are only two of nearly two dozen law suits, including the Tuskegee Syphilis Case, that Fred Gray writes about in his book.

Bus Ride to Justice is an important addition to the body of Civil Rights Movement literature. Books about demonstrations, freedom riders, and marchers tell one side of this important story. This book gives voice to the man that spoke for all Americans through lawsuits that made good on his pledge to “destroy everything segregated that [he] could find.” The author says it best himself when he writes: “In the final analysis it was the lawsuits which really changed conditions in the South and this nation.”

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Originally Published: April 1995, Montgomery Advertiser
© Copyright – 1995.  Major W. Cox and The Union Springs Facts.

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