Wineskins Archive

February 4, 2014

Bus Ride to Justice (Jul-Aug 1998)

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The Story of a Faithful Gospel Preacher and Martin Luther King’s Lawyer, Fred Gray

by Michael Casey
July – August, 1998

33For too long Fred Gray has been unknown to most Christians. Gray, an Arican American, preacher and elder at the Tuskegee Church of Christ in Tuskegee, Alabama, has been an integral part of American history. Gray was Rosa Parks’ and Martin Luther King’s lawyer during the Montgomery Bus Boycott and has argued several land mark legal cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Gray has written his autobiography Bus Ride to Justice: Changing the System By the System, The Life and Times of Fred Gray which is published by Black Belt Press, P.O. Box 551, Montgomery, Albama 36101. The book should be purchased and read by all readers of Wineskins The book is a well-written story of Gray’s rise from the ghetto of Montgomery to his success as both a lawyer and gospel preacher. It is an inspiring account of how he overcame the racial prejudice of the South and played a central role in transforming both Southern and American society for the better.

Fred GrayGray makes it clear that his Christian commitment was central to his pledge to “destroy everything segregated I could find.” He was born in 1930 and delivered by a midwife (African Americans were not allowed to use the hospitals) in a house that had no running water or indoor bathrooms. Both his parents were members of the Holt Street Church of Christ in Montgomery. His father died when Gray was two but his mother made sure Fred received a Christian education. Even though his mother could not afford it, starting with eighth grade, Fred was sent to nashville Christian Institutee, Marshall Keeble’s Boarding school for young African Americans. Fred was selected by Keeble as a “boy preacher” to accompany him on fund raising and preaching trips.

After finishing NCI a year early, Gray went to Alabama State College, a historically black college in Montgomery. Blacks were not allowed to attend either the University of Alabama or Auburn. While in college, Gray decided to apply to law school and was admitted to Case Western Reserve Law School in Cleveland, Ohio. He was unable to apply to any of Alabama’s law schools because they would not admit any African-Americans. However, Gray was eligible for state funds to pay his way in a law school outside of Alabama. Through this program he was able to finance a significant part of his legal education. His secret plan was to return to Alabama and practice law in order to combat segregation laws.

While at Cleveland he studied how Alabama law applied to legal cases. All of his research focused on Alabama law. At the same tie he remained active in the local congregation in Cleveland. He returned to Montgomery in 1954, even though most of his professors thought he had a promising career in the North and most church members were skeptical that Gray could remain a Christian and a lawyer!

Gray narrates the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott that launched the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King’s career. While most histories of the Civil Rights Movement mention Gray they do not tell what he did in the courts to defend Rosa Parks, King and the bus boycotters. Gray eventually filed a lawsuit to declare unconstitutional Montgomery’s laws mandating segregated buses. This successful lawsuit went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where the montgomery Bus System was ordered integrated. Gray writes at the end of the story on the bus boycott:

“One could say that Mrs. Parks’ refusal to surrender her seat on a montgomery bus created an ever-widening ripple of change throughout the world … A pebble case in the segregated waters of Montgomery, Alabama created a human rights tidal wave that changed America and eventually washed up on the shores of such faraway places as the Bahamas, China, South Africa, and the Soviet Union. And it all started on a bus” (pp. 96-97).

Gray was 25 and Martin Luther King 26 when the bus boycott started.

While the story of the bus boycott is clearly one of the highlights of Gray’s book, his career was just starting. A few years later the city of Tuskegee, despite being 80 percent African-American, decided to gerrymander the city boundaries to exclude most black voters and keep the white politicans in control. The African-American leaders persuaded Gray to take the case. It also went all the way to the Supreme Court and here for the first time Gray actually argued the case before the justices. Gray writes:

“I entered the courtroom as another case was being argued. I felt weak with apprehension. I remembered my childhood in Montgomery. How could I, a black man, born in an Alabama ghetto, whose father died when I was two years old and whose mother had only a second grade education, argue a case before the United States Supreme Court?” (p. 4).

Gray did speak and spoke eloquently. He won the case, which is recognized as one of the landmark civil rights cases in American history – for it helped establish the precedent of “one man, one vote” and prevented disingenuous ways to discriminate against minorities. Thousands of African-Americans and other minorities are now elected officials in local, state and national elected bodies because of this case.

Many other important legal cases are described in the book, including Gray’s efforts to protect the 1965 Selma marchers from white violence. Gray’s unsuccessful attempt to become a Federal judge is told. Gray also became one of the first African-American state legislators in Alabama since Reconstruction. Gray also tells about the interesting and changing relationship that he had with George Wallace. Also, Gray became the President of the National Bar Association, the national organization for African-American lawyers.

What is amazing about Gray’s career is that he remained an active minister for much of his legal career, preachng for various churches in Montgomery and later Tuskegee. Gray also tells the story of how he and Alan Parker, a white leader and church member in Tuskegee, integrated the white and black Churches of Christ in Tuskegee.

As U.S. Representative John L. Lewis writes about Gray in his introduction to Gray’s book: “We are blessed to have the story of his life. We can learn much from this courageous man.”
Wineskins Magazine

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