I recently attended funeral services for Bernice Hill Gray. The atmosphere of the services, attracting hundreds of veterans of the Civil Rights movement, reminded me of another occasion: the ninetieth birthday party of legendary civil-rights activist, Virginia Durr, when I first met Mrs. Gray. That is because both, Mrs. Durr’s 1993 Martha’s Vineyard birthday party and Mrs. Gray’s Montgomery funeral rites, were celebrations of a life lived manifesting some of society’s most sacred values.
In contemporary American society, funeral rites serve as symbolic interpretations of one’s life. Service renditions focus on the social context, considering them an expression of a core of life values sacred to the society. In this context, Mrs. Gray’s funeral service manifested many of society’s core values.
This column is not the appropriate venue to celebrate, “The Beautiful Life of Mrs. Bernice Hill Gray.” I am not qualified for that task. That was best done by hundreds of her family and friends on March 22, 1997 at Southside Church of Christ in Montgomery, Alabama. Having said that, allow me to describe how I experienced her funeral service.
I did not know Mrs. Gray personally, I met her once at the aforementioned birthday party for Mrs. Durr. I am better acquainted with her husband, but I feel I know them both well because of their work and its impact on our world.
As Margaret and I walked toward the church, a distinguished looking gentleman walked ahead of us. He greeted a number of guests including Senator Charles Langford, who approached and greeted him, before I identified myself and asked his name. Maurice Bell…the name didn’t ring a bell (pun intended) with me.
Mr. Bell explained he has known Senator Langford for over forty years. He was one of two white lawyers to sign for Charles Langford, an African American, so that he could practice law before the federal court in the early 1950s. At that time, Charles Langford may have been the only African American lawyer in Montgomery. (For those of us who keep track of such things; Arthur Shores, with a Birmingham practice, was the first African American lawyer in the state of Alabama).
Margaret and I took our seats in the church sanctuary, to await the start of the service. While the services were a solemn commemoration, I also felt great privilege to again be among so many of the real heroes of the Civil Rights movement.
Waiting for the services to begin, many guests engaged each other in conversation. A man and a woman seated near us were talking about friends from their school days. They were remembering friends who attended medical school at Meharry Medical College and became dentists and doctors. They talked of friends who studied pharmacy and others who became lawyers. They talked about Erskine Hawkins, the famous jazz trumpet player of Tuxedo Junction fame. I knew that Hawkins attended Alabama State University, so I assumed they also attended ASU. The conservation between these people made me want to know them.
During the service, one defining theme characterized each tribute bestowed upon Beatrice Gray: Her family. Some friends spoke of her community work and her work with young people. Others told how she cared for those in need. but it was her son, Fred Gray, Jr., who told how she loved her family. Then, as a final tribute Fred Gray, Sr., her husband of over forty years, spoke about their mutual devotion. After he finished speaking, I could only think of what wonderful role models these two individuals lives make.
Upon completion of the services, I turned to the man sitting in the seat next to me and requested that he write his name and that of his conversation partner on the back of the funeral program. He honored my request.
After Margaret and I returned home, I took my copy of Fred Gray’s book, Bus Ride To Justice and found the two names in the index. There were several references to both Calvin Pryor, a retired Assistant U.S. Attorney and Thelma Glass, a retired Alabama State University history professor.
I stood for a moment with the book opened to the index, reading the names of dozens of my friends who are veterans of the Civil Rights movement and also attended the funeral. I realized how fortunate I am to be living in Montgomery among so many veterans of the Civil Rights movement who forged change to the political, economic, and demographic geography of the planet.
Originally Published: 2 April 1997, Montgomery Advertiser