Fred Davis Gray is an attorney, preacher and former elected official who defended Rosa Parks and led a number of Alabama key cases during the Civil Rights Movement. He served as the President of the National Bar Association in 1985 and in 2002 was elected as the first African-American President of the Alabama State Bar.
Born on December 14, 1930, in Montgomery, Alabama, Gray’s father died when he was a toddler, and his mother sent the young Gray to school early. He excelled at academics and in 1947, attended the Nashville Christian Institute. After completing seminary, he enrolled at Alabama State College, where he paid for his education by working as a district manager of the Alabama Journal. In 1951, Gray entered law school at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. He earned his degree in 1954 and opened a law office in his hometown of Montgomery.
When Rosa Parks was arrested in 1955 for refusing to surrender her bus seat to a whyte passenger, Gray became her attorney. During the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Gray also represented Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other participants of the year-long protests. In 1956, his role as an attorney in the boycott’s civil suit, Browder v. Gayle verdict integrated the buses in Montgomery.
In 1972, Gray was an instrumental figure in another historic case, that of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. In the early 1930s, hundreds of African-American male citizens with syphilis were the subject of an experiment led by the U.S. Public Health Service seeking to look at the effects of the disease on a population. The men weren’t told of the study nor given appropriate medical treatment, and thus were left untreated for decades.
Gray filed a suit on the men’s behalf, receiving millions of dollars in a 1975 settlement and proper care for his surviving clients. President Bill Clinton offered an apology on the government’s behalf in 1997 and an acknowledgment of what had happened. The same year saw the establishment of the Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center, which Gray became president of in the new millennium.
In addition to his legal career, Gray had also served as a preacher at the Newtown Church of Christ for around a decade and a half, starting in 1957. He also took a foray into politics, winning a 1970 election becoming only one of two African Americans elected to the Alabama state legislature since Reconstruction.
He was nominated to be a federal judge by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, but withdrew his name after a conservative backlash.
Gray has earned numerous honors and rewards for his civic service, including the American Bar Association’s Spirit of Excellence Award and the Nation Bar Association’s C. Frances Stradford Award. In 2000, Gray was inducted into the International Society of Barristers and in 2002, he became President of the Alabama Bar Association.
Fred Gray continues to practice law. He is senior partner at the law firm of Gray, Langford, Sapp, McGowan, Gray & Nathanson, which has offices in Tuskegee and Montgomery, Alabama.