Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks are the names etched in civil rights history, but one man in the background often helped these civil rights leaders to blaze their trails. Fred Gray, the attorney who represented these two activists in the 1950s, gave a speech entitled “Civil Rights: Past, Present, and Future” yesterday afternoon in the gymnasium of downtown Ithaca’s Beverly J. Martin Elementary School.
Cal Walker, associate director of Cornell’s Learning Strategies Center, introduced Gray to the audience, saying “You will be hearing first-hand accounts of history.”
The Alabama-born Gray, who served as the 43rd president of the National Bar Association, has a long history of law stretching back to 1954, when he was admitted to the Alabama Bar Association. Six months later, he represented Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old girl who refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus. Over the next two years he acted as attorney for Parks, King and the Montgomery Bus Boycott participants.
“We are living today, on the 20th of February, 2005, in a crucial time …” said Gray, citing the presidential inauguration, the Iraq war and affirmative action as key issues of the day. “Unfortunately, our current students … and many of their parents, don’t know the history of the civil rights movement, don’t know what it was about, don’t even know why it was necessary,” he said.
Surveying the civil rights movement, Gray went as far back as Jamestown, Virginia, and touched upon landmark cases like Dred Scott v. Sanford and Plessy v. Ferguson. “African Americans were the only ethnic group who came to this country contrary to their will,” Gray said.
Even foundational documents like the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution carved out civil rights primarily for white men, said Gray. “We recite in the preamble to the Constitution ‘We the people,’ but ‘We the people’ in the preamble of the Constitution did not include people who looked like me.”
“I made a secret commitment … and that was, I was going to leave Alabama, go to law school, come back to Alabama, pass the bar exam, become a lawyer and destroy everything segregated I could find,” said Gray, who laid the groundwork for the integration of all educational institutions in Alabama.
As a child, Gray was interested in preaching and often baptized cats and dogs. He decided to pursue a law degree in his junior year at Alabama State University because he realized that, as important as the afterlife was, “[people] needed to enjoy some constitutional rights while here on earth.”
A severe reminder of the need for protecting rights came in 1972, when Gray took on the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Researchers of the 40-year government experiment on the progress of the disease in black males hid the study’s true intent from its 600 subjects and did not treat men afflicted with syphilis even after treatment became widely available.
Gray’s representation of the participants was instrumental in President Clinton’s apology to the men and their families on national TV and in establishing the Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center.
“Racism in this country is still alive and too many decisions are still made based on race,” Gray said. He explained that, without acknowledging racism as a major problem, people will not take reformative action.
Using America’s involvement in Iraq’s government change as an example, Gray said, “If we were going to devote as much resources … to destroying racism in this country, it could be done. It hasn’t been done because we don’t have the will to do it.”
Activists in the audience drew strength from Gray’s speech.
“It has given me an opportunity to really think and keep going with the struggle,” said Shawn Moore, director and attorney for Human Rights Commission of Tompkins County.
Moore, whose organization handles about fifty discrimination cases a month, added “I know for a fact discrimination has not come to an end.”
For many, Gray’s direct participation in historical milestones made his speech very powerful. Robert Harris, Jr., vice provost for diversity and faculty services, said Gray’s visit was significant for Cornell and Ithaca “because he’s a part of history and it’s not everyday we have an opportunity to meet someone who really changed the course of history.”
Walker, who helped to coordinate Gray’s visit along with Harris and other campus and county organizations, said, “Fred Gray is historically very important because of the active role he took in articulating legal strategies that changed the landscape of human and civil rights issues in this country.”
For Walker, Gray’s message was a very personal one as well; he had a grandfather and great-grandfather who were both participants in the Tuskegee syphilis study. Gray also delivered a sermon titled “Learning to Live with Life’s Ups and Downs” in Sage Chapel yesterday morning.
Archived article by Xiaowei Cathy Tang
Sun Staff Writer