Fred Gray: “Chief Counsel of the Protest Movement”

February 15, 2021

When Claudette Colvin and, later, Rosa Parks were arrested for refusing to recognize Alabama’s law segregating buses, the Montgomery Bus Boycott began. In each of their cases, a 24-year-old man fresh out of law school named Fred Gray, who had recently moved back to his hometown to “destroy everything segregated,” represented them. Not only did he defend the activists against charges of disorderly conduct, but he, along with attorney Charles Langford, filed a federal district court petition challenging the constitutionality of the Alabama state law at the heart of their cases. This petition would become Browder v. Gayle and named Colvin as one of four plaintiffs. Gray and Langford filed it just two days after segregationists bombed Martin Luther King’s house, on February 1, 1956. A three-judge U.S. District Court panel ruled two-to-one that the segregation law was unconstitutional, citing Brown v. Board of Education. Five months later, the Supreme Court affirmed the decision, and desegregation of buses ended.

For nearly the next fifty years, Gray would play a prominent role in almost every major civil rights case in the state of Alabama. In 1960, Gomillion v. Lightfoot proved that Tuskegee, Alabama’s gerrymandering, which changed the boundaries of the city from the shape of a square to something resembling a “sea dragon,” had disenfranchised Black voters by excluding them from the municipality. In 1965, William v. Wallace issued an injunction forcing the State of Alabama to protect marchers walking from Selma to Montgomery from its own law enforcement officers. Mitchell v. Johnson addressed the systemic exclusion of Blacks from jury service. Lee v. Macon integrated most schools in Alabama, including all state institutions of higher education. Fred Gray had become what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the chief counsel for the protest movement.”

Although Gray focused most of his practice fighting segregation, he also famously filed suit on behalf of the victims of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. The unethical and profoundly damaging US Public Health Service study, which began in 1932 and lasted until a whistleblower revealed it in 1972, recruited more than 600 Black men from Macon County, Alabama, who had been diagnosed with syphilis. Under the guise of offering free medical care, researchers deprived the men of widely available antibiotic treatment and allowed their conditions to progress in order to study how their bodies would react to the disease. Up to 100 men are thought to have died of the disease, hundreds more went on to infect their wives and many children were born with the congenital form of the illness.

The suit Gray filed was settled for $10 million, but the Black community’s trust of the health care system was permanently damaged. The Tuskegee study has been widely cited in recent months to contextualize hesitancy in the Black community about taking the Covid-19 vaccine. Gray championed not just the case but the preservation of the story of what happened to these families through the foundation of the Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center.  

Today at 90, Gray still lives in Tuskegee, Alabama, the town he fought so hard to change. He is the senior partner in the law firm of Gray, Langford, Sapp, McGowan, Gray & Nathanson.