Bryan Stevenson Fred Gray
I had the great pleasure today of attending the Alabama Appleseed Brewer-Torbert Awards Luncheon. What an inspiring event!
This year's award was presented to Fred Gray, a legendary civil rights attorney and icon. Mr. Gray grew up in Alabama during some of its darkest days of racial segregation and discrimination. As he put it during his remarks today, he wasn't someone who always wanted to be a lawyer. "There were two professions in Alabama for a little black boy to grow up and go into," he said: "You could be a preacher, or you could be a teacher. I decided to be both." Mr. Gray did become both, and then he returned to Alabama to teach. But what he saw every day prodded him to do even more. Seeing black Alabamians mistreated as he rode the bus, Mr. Gray said he made a secret pledge to become a lawyer, then return to Alabama and destroy every segregated thing he could find. And he did!
Bryan Stevenson, the equally legendary (though he would deny that) Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, was today's keynote speaker. He eloquently explained the courage, the tenacity, and also the hopefulness, that it took for Fred Gray to return to Alabama after getting his law degree. As he noted, in the 1950s many very talented black Alabamians went elsewhere to pursue their education and never came back. They are doing extraordinary things somewhere else. But Mr. Gray came back, not only because he was brave and determined, but because somehow, he believed he could change things. And he did!
Mr. Gray represented Rosa Parks when she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, sparking the famous bus boycott. He represented Martin Luther King. He represented the victims of the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments. And he continues to fight for equal justice, often in ways that are no more popular today than desegregation and equal accommodations for black people in Alabama were in the 1950s and 60s. I once had the privilege of representing Mr. Gray, as part of a distinguished group of amici, in supporting a class action by Alabama death row inmates. And during his remarks today, Mr. Gray explained how some of his current clients were victims of civil rights violations that, on the surface, are not necessarily apparent. He's been practicing law for sixty years, and still speaks with the same fire with which you can imagine him defending the rights of Ms. Parks and Dr. King.
How appropriate for Fred Gray to be honored by Appleseed, which seeks systemic change for justice. Although he represented (and still represents) individuals, Mr. Gray's courageous actions brought about tremendous systemic change in Alabama, and throughout the nation.