By Jerry Harris
HE’S A QUIET southern gentlemen, but he wields the law like a warrior. He is fueled with a deep conviction to his calling in life. Though he is nearly 88, his recall of facts and names is instantaneous. He is friendly . . . able to distinguish lines that separate the arena of ideas from the God-given value of every human being with whom he comes in contact.
He’s among the last remaining champions of the earliest days of the civil rights movement; he is the one who brought the heavy weight of the law to bear on that movement, helping to change the nation forever. He was the primary counsel to Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin, Dr. Martin Luther King, and many others. His legal voice was behind the Montgomery bus boycott, the desegregation of Alabama schools, the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March, and the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. His name is Fred David Gray.
He tells his story in Bus Ride to Justice: The Life and Works of Fred D. Gray, an autobiography of the life of a man thrust into one of the most pivotal periods of 20th-century American history. His cases and the landmark rulings that resulted are now studied by all lawyers, but it’s likely few know that the foundation of his life upon which his contributions rest is his relationship with Jesus Christ and his commitment to follow and serve him.
I learned about Gray while studying the life of Marshall Keeble in preparation for my article in last February’s Christian Standard. As I sought to identify the young men sitting around Keeble in the photograph used on the cover of that issue, I discovered that a young Fred Gray was sitting on Keeble’s right. I shared that discovery with friends and colleagues. When I learned Gray would be speaking at the Christian Scholar’s Conference at Lipscomb University in Nashville, I lined up a one-on-one interview with him.
I read Bus Ride to Justice in preparation for our talk; I highly recommend his autobiography for better insight into Gray’s life and work. Here are excerpts from our conversation:
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QUESTION: What was it like to attend Nashville Christian Institute and be one of Marshall Keeble’s boy preachers?
ANSWER: Really—[and this is] most important—if I have made any contribution in the civil rights movement or in the church, it’s because of what my mother taught. My father died when I was 2 and we were as poor as anyone could be. [Mother] taught me to keep Christ first in my life, to get an education, and to stay out of trouble.
Because I was interested in becoming a minister, I ended up going to Nashville. Brother Johnson, our minister at the Holt Street Church of Christ [Montgomery, Alabama], was from Nashville and knew about Nashville Christian Institute.
When I got there in 1943, we may have had 200 students. It was a boarding school with one big room with double beds for all the male students. We established relationships with the persons who were there; one whom I met on the night of my arrival was Robert Woods from Gallatin, Tennessee. He later went to Chicago and preached for 50 years at the Monroe Street church before he retired. He died about two years ago.
We had teachers who were very dedicated to the work. We had two white teachers, J. W. Brent, who taught Bible, and Lambert Campbell, who taught public speaking. A year later, when brother Keeble came, he decided to have some boy preachers, and that gave me the opportunity to travel and meet a lot of people; I met [many of those same people] later and was able to build on those relationships. Our world was based on Christianity . . . and it really served a very useful purpose.
That was my relationship to NCI, and I maintained it until the school closed. We believed that there should have been some effort to keep it open, but they closed it [in 1967] without giving the black members of the church an opportunity to raise enough money to keep it open. We recognized that the church in Nashville was very influential and that our likelihood of success [in legally challenging the school’s closing] was not that good, but we needed to do it, at least to let them know that we thought it was wrong. Students from that school, even though it was small, have gone on and developed into real leaders across the nation.
With respect to brother Keeble, most people say in the church of Christ, both historically black and historically white, that he converted more individuals than any other single person. He converted many of those before he became involved in the school. Brother Keeble had a lot of good common sense and he knew how to deal with people of all races.
I remember how he used to say that the Bible was God’s cookbook. “All you have to do is read that cookbook and do what it says. Then you can cook!” He used that as an example to follow the Bible, God’s cookbook. He taught me how to pack a bag and how to fold a suit. The picture on your cover [from last February’s issue] was made in Natchez, Mississippi, during the summer of 1947. Those persons were Robert Woods, Hansen Reed from Oklahoma, Robert McBride (who came up from Montgomery with me), and myself.
Q: How would you describe your call to help eliminate segregation from our nation, and how did that call connect to your call to ministry?
A: I was baptized when I was 8 and started preaching at 12 when I went to Nashville. There was no connection between deciding to be a preacher and deciding to do civil rights work. There was a relationship between deciding to be a lawyer and deciding to do civil rights work.
I decided to become a lawyer because I understood that lawyers help people, [and I understood] how that related to segregation and how we were being treated on buses. I realized everything was segregated and something needed to be done about it. E. D. Nixon, our family friend, had been president of the NAACP, the state conference and branches, and was always looking for lawyers to help black folks. He encouraged me to become a lawyer. His wife was a member of our church.
Q: You have played a key role in the civil rights movement on the national stage. How did it feel working with Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin, and others?
A: You have to remember that . . . none of us had in mind starting a civil rights movement. Certainly, Dr. King didn’t come to Montgomery to do that. A lot of people think that, but the church Dr. King came to preach for, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, was a small African-American Baptist Church with a small membership. Most of the people there were educated and had jobs, but most of those jobs were state, city, or civil related, and if their supervisors heard they were doing something to end segregation, they would have been fired. So that was not the church to file any of the lawsuits that had to do with desegregation, even though our first meeting was in the basement of that church.
The pastor that preceded Dr. King was interested in desegregation, and the church didn’t agree with what he had in mind and got rid of him because, to them, that was unorthodox. Each of those persons got involved in the Montgomery bus boycott and the movement because they had a problem.
Claudette Colvin wasn’t thinking about anything other than coming home from school like she had done all the time. That day, the school [released students] early for a teachers meeting. This meant she had to ride a bus earlier than normal. There were more white people on that earlier bus than her usual one. When the driver told her to get up, she said she wasn’t in the white section; she was sitting in her usual seat, had paid her fare, and wasn’t going to move. She was arrested. She had a problem, and so I defended her.
I was very happy to defend Claudette, and was prepared to take her case as far as I needed to go to get justice for her. It was E. D. Nixon [president of the local chapter of the NAACP] who came to her rescue, and Jo Ann Robinson who had experienced her own problems on a bus years before who wanted a protest and mass participation. Dr. King was there as a pastor of a small church with a relatively new bride. All of these persons were just individuals, not anybody who was looked upon as iconic, or anybody that was looking to do anything . . . they all just had a problem.
Dr. King didn’t suggest that he be the spokesman. Jo Ann and I were sitting in her living room making plans. Normally, E. D. Nixon would have been the spokesman because he had more black people following him. Rufus Lewis was also there, but he was only concerned with voter registration in order to hold elected officials accountable. We were afraid that if we selected either of these two to be spokesman, we would lose some other support. Then Jo Ann said about Dr. King, “Fred, I’ll tell you, my pastor can move people with words!” I said, “Well, I’ve met him, I don’t know him like you do, but that’s fine.”
We knew that if we were going to keep people off the buses, it was going to take time and money. E. D. Nixon knew A. Philip Randolph, a black labor leader in New York. He could get A. Philip Randolph to raise money from across the country, so we made him [Nixon] treasurer.
With respect to Rufus Lewis, there wasn’t much we could do about voting, but his wife, Jewell, was the co-owner of the largest funeral home in town. They had cars, and the only time they used them was for funerals. They could use those cars to take people to and from work or wherever else they needed to go. We made Rufus chair of the transportation committee.
None of us could tell about our involvement. Jo Ann would have been fired [from her teaching job at Alabama State College] and they would have disbarred me. Jo Ann was fired later during the sit-in protests, along with others, and they did attempt to disbar me. Dr. King was somewhat hesitant because there were older Baptist preachers with larger churches and more experience, but the community wanted him, so he accepted it. The rest is history, as they say.
Q: How were you able to manage responsibilities as both minister and lawyer during that critical time?
A: I had been a part-time preacher for some time. When I was in Nashville, there was a church in Gallatin that needed a preacher. They would call the school and ask them to send a preacher over. Later, they needed a preacher in Bowling Green, Kentucky. I’d take the bus early on Sunday morning. It would take an hour or two to get up there, and then I would ride back in the evening.
When I was going to Alabama State College, brother John Henry Clay asked me to preach in two churches he had planted. Brother Clay baptized a lot of people in Alabama, probably second only to brother Keeble, and established a number of churches. Among those churches was one in Brundidge and another in Lanett. These were the two I served.
In the meantime, I had to register for the draft and told them I was both a student and a minister, and the work I was doing. Annually, they would ask for a report, I would tell them what I was doing, and they would be perfectly satisfied with it. As soon as I got to Montgomery, my home church, Holt Street Church of Christ, was looking for a minister. K. K. Mitchell, a classmate of mine from NCI, was preaching in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, and my stepbrother and I recommended him for the position. When he became the minister, he asked for me to be his assistant.
Then the bus boycott started and I continued to report my ministry work to the draft board. After I filed the lawsuit, a newspaper reporter found out that I had been classified as 4D, a ministry deferment, so he wrote an article about my classification. The draft board immediately changed my classification from 4D to 1A. It took lots of appeals to change that.
Shortly after the boycott started, I was told the church in Newtown [in Montgomery, Alabama] needed a preacher and I preached there for the next 15 years, during the whole time I was working on these civil rights cases.
There were some church folks who didn’t think that lawyers could be preachers, they didn’t even think they could be Christians because they were liars, but I had no problem with it. As a matter of fact, I felt that they complemented each other because whatever I did in the legal profession, I always looked first at what I was doing and whether it would be acceptable with Christ.
A: I decided a long time ago about black churches [of Christ] that had problems [and] wanted me to [represent them in court] to solve those problem. I decided I was not going to participate in any dispute between churches of Christ over what the law says to do. I didn’t feel like that was the way the Lord wanted those problems resolved. They both ought to be willing to follow his instructions and solve them without the aid of the civilian government. And if the members are going to do that, there are other lawyers out there [to represent them].
I have felt that the matter of religion is an individual matter and it’s up to that individual to do what the Lord says to do. I have my opinion on what is right or wrong . . . or they might, but we will know [what was right] when the Lord comes back. If we’re reading the same Bible and understanding it properly, we should do what the Lord says to do. Each group shouldn’t tell the other group what to do, but [instead should] concentrate on what the Lord says.
Q: How can segregation be eliminated in our churches today?
A: I think any of these churches—whether Christian church, church of Christ, or denominational church—should follow the instructions of Jesus . . . and if they follow his instructions, there will be no discrimination . . . it would be completely eliminated.
Q: The Restoration Movement was meant to be a unity movement. In what ways do you think we should be unified today?
A: I don’t profess to be an expert on the Restoration Movement. I have based my opinions on what the Bible teaches. I’ve done that from reading the Bible and learning from what preachers and teachers over the years have taught me. I understand what the Lord says I should do as a result of that. That is where I am, and I have been there all the time. I believe people need to understand what the Bible says and then obey it. In the final analysis, none of us may know until Jesus comes back who was right and who was wrong, but we will have done what we could.
Q: Do you think the civil rights movement was a gospel-centered movement?
A: I think the church played a major role in the civil rights movement because it was a relatively safe place for people to assemble and discuss whatever they wanted to discuss, including civil rights activities, without fear that anybody would hurt them or that they would be violating any laws. It may very well be a carryover, as far as African-Americans are concerned, from slavery times, even when they didn’t have buildings. They just met and sang songs that they made up about what they ought to do, how things should be improved, and how the Lord was going to help them do it. The church has served as a good meeting place, and it still does.
There were many places in the South where you couldn’t have an integrated meeting without fear that something would happen to you. Even now there are problems. But the church has played a role in the movement. The Lord has a way of doing things we don’t understand, but he moves in mysterious ways with wonders to perform!
I have my own personal feeling on some things, and over the years, when my mind has told me to do something, I usually did it. For some reason, it tells me to do something and when I do it, it becomes one of the best things that could ever happen. I feel the same about this interview. I receive sometimes two or three requests a day to do them but usually decline. I have a different feeling about this one. If this has an influence on somebody else or may help, you can’t tell what people may do.
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IT’S RARE to have an opportunity to speak with a person with personal insights into events of such historic importance. Fred Gray is a living example of how one person empowered by the Holy Spirit can make a difference both inside and outside of the church for now and eternity. I left the interview with a desire to make a difference with whatever opportunities God puts before me.
Gray wrote in the epilogue to the 1995 version of Bus Ride to Justice: “Above all, I pledge to do my best to live a Christian life as a benediction to those I have loved and who have loved me, and to those who have inspired me and in some cases given their very lives so that I could do my part in destroying everything segregated I could find. May God Bless America, my home, sweet home, and may God bless you.”
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Gray’s Landmark Civil Rights Cases
Gomillion v. Lightfoot
Restored the voting rights of African Americans in the city of Tuskegee, Alabama, after city boundaries were redrawn to largely exclude them. Laid the foundation for the precedent of “one man, one vote.”
NAACP v. Alabama
Permitted civil rights organizations to assert the rights of their members.
Smith v. Paris
Eliminated vote dilution in the state of Alabama.
St. John Dixon v. Alabama State Board of Education
Established due process rights for students.
Lee v. Macon County Board of Education
Desegregated public school systems in Alabama and all institutions under the state board of education.
Williams v. Wallace
Ordered the governor of Alabama to protect participants in the Selma to Montgomery March, which led directly to passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Pollard v. United States
Prohibited the U.S. government from continuing to refuse to treat African Americans who had been used in human experiments (the Tuskegee Syphilis Study).
(Adapted from Bus Ride To Justice.)
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The Tuskegee History Center (also known as The Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center)
The Tuskegee History Center was born from Fred and Bernice Gray’s desire to capture the history of the area, and particularly to memorialize those who were abused as part of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study. It’s formation was announced on May 17, 1997, at the White House, where President Bill Clinton formally apologized on behalf of the nation to the study participants and the community in Alabama for the conduct of the government.
The center operates on the donations of those who wish to remind America and the world about the incredible need for human and civil rights. More information is available at www.tuskegeecenter.org; tax-deductible donations can also be made via that website.