Civil Rights Lawyer Fred Gray speaks at Case

James W. Wade III | 11/6/2013, 10:06 a.m.
The plan was to get the corporation of the Black preachers to help spread the word about boycotting the buses. ...
Attorney Fred Gray a known Civil Rights Lawyer came to Case Western Reserve University Law School to talk about his updated book Bus Ride to Justice. Photo by James W. Wade III

Fred Gray, a civil rights attorney, was one of Case Western Reserve University distinguished graduates. He spoke to a group about his early days as a lawyer, when he represented Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, the Black ministers sued in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, and the victims of the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment among many others.

He successfully argued Gomillion v. Lightfoot, the Tuskegee gerrymandering case, and played an important part in several other landmark Supreme Court cases. He also had a leading role in many of the most important civil rights cases in Alabama for the last six decades.

Promoting his updated book, “Bus Ride to Justice,” an autobiography he originally wrote in 1994, Gray said he could talk about many more things in this edition then he could in the first one.

A proud graduated of Case in 1954, he shared how he came to Cleveland. His mother said you must be a teacher or preacher, so he chose to do both.

Gray shared how they talked in the planning stages of the bus boycott and gave a history lesson on why he wanted to become a lawyer.

“I wanted to destroy everything segregated that I could find,” said Gray. Laughing while talking, he discussed Rosa Parks’ 1955 arrest for violating the segregated seating ordinance on a Montgomery bus.

He represented her at her trial and incorporated Edgar. D. (E.D.) Nixon. He signed the bond to release Rosa from jail. Nixon was an African-American civil rights leader and union organizer playing a crucial role in organizing the landmark Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama in 1955 with Gray.

It highlighted the issues of segregation in the South, was upheld for more than a year by Black residents, and nearly brought the city-owned bus system to bankruptcy.

Gray and JoAnn Robinson planned how they were going to boycott the bus. Robinson knew of all the problems on the bus and they shared them Claudette Colvin. When she was 15, she refused to move to the back of the bus and give up her seat to a White person, nine months before Rosa Parks did the very same thing.

The plan was to get the corporation of the Black preachers to help spread the word about boycotting the buses. Realizing they needed a spokesman, they thought a man named Rufus Lewis – a great advocate for civil rights back then. He had a night club called the Citizens Club, if you wanted to get in the club you had to be a registered voter.

Robinson offered her pastor of Dexter Ave. Baptist Church, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“All these plans took place in JoAnn’s living room. We spent some long hours in her place organizing this boycott,” said Gray. Joann suggested they refrain from riding the bus and the day of Rosa’s trial stay off the bus as a protest.

As history was set with the boycott, what was expected to be a short protest lasted 381 days, more than one year. Despite fierce political opposition, police coercion, personal threats and their own sacrifices, the Blacks of Montgomery held the boycott.

They walked to work. The people with cars gave others rides. They gave up some trips. Bus ridership plummeted, as Blacks were the majority riders in the system, and the bus company was on the verge of financial ruin. In late January, a bomb was set off near the home of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and, on February 1, 1956, a bomb exploded in front of Nixon’s home.

That was the day the attorneys Gray and Charles Langford filed the petition in federal district court for it to review the state and city laws on bus segregation. This was the case that became known as Browder v. Gayle in 1956. They filed on behalf of five Montgomery women originally: Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin, Mary Louise Smith, and Jeanatte Reese who withdrew from the case in February.

Gray offered future law students to call him. He also gave them a case to work on before autographing books.

Watch Fred Gray at Case click here