Alabama civil rights attorney Fred Gray Sr. will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, President Joe Biden announced today.
Gray, 91, built his legendary career at the forefront of battles to end segregation, representing Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin, the victims of the Tuskegee syphilis study, and the NAACP, among many others. Parks called Gray “the chief counsel for the protest movement.”
Gray, a Montgomery native who still practices law, represented the plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the case that in the US Supreme Court’s decision in 1956 outlawing segregation on city buses, the case growing out of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He litigated other landmark cases on school desegregation and racial gerrymandering of political districts.
Gray issued a statement this morning through the office of US Rep. Terri Sewell, who wrote Biden last year asking the president to choose Gray for the award. Gray thanked Biden and Sewell and encouraged Americans to continue to strive for justice and equality.
“This award means a great deal to me, an African American civil rights lawyer who was born in the ghettos of Montgomery, Alabama,” Gray said. “It speaks volumes to Civil Rights workers who have dedicated their talents and resources toward improving the quality of life of Americans in this country; and it speaks directly to African Americans in general.
“When I filed the various civil rights cases from 1955 to date, I was concerned about African Americans receiving the same constitutional rights as all other Americans. We have made substantial progress but the struggle for the elimination of racism and for equal justice continues. I hope this award will encourage other Americans to do what they can to complete the task so that all American citizens will be treated the same, equally and fairly, in accordance with the Constitution.”
Gray was one of 17 winners of the Medal of Freedom announced by the president today. The award is presented to individuals who have made exemplary contributions to the prosperity, values, or security of the United States, world peace, or other significant societal public or private endeavors, according to a press release from the White House.
Another pioneer member of the civil rights movement who spent time in Alabama made the list.
Diane Nash, 84, was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and played a key role in the Freedom Rides and the 1965 Selma voting rights campaigns.
Among the other recipients are Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, both of whom will receive the medal posthumously. Others include award-winning actor Denzel Washington; Simone Biles, America’s most decorated gymnast; and Gabrielle Giffords, a former member of Congress who survived gun violence and co-founded a nonprofit organization to prevent gun violence.
You can see the full list here. The awards will be presented at the White House on July 7.
In a statement, Sewell said words could not describe her joy about Gray receiving the award.
“From the very beginning, I’ve known that there is no one more deserving of our nation’s highest civilian honor than Attorney Gray whose trailblazing work helped end segregation and advance a more equitable future,” Sewell said. “Attorney Gray is one of the most consequential civil rights lawyers of our time, having represented Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, and the Foot Soldiers.”
Alabama State University President Quinton Ross issued a statement today on the recognition of Gray, who graduated from what was then Alabama State College in 1951.
“Fred Gray has dedicated his life to securing fairness and equality for those who have been denied those rights that are stipulated in this nation’s Constitution,” Ross said. “He has worked tirelessly and fearlessly to right the many wrongs that have been done to people of color. Alabama State University is immeasurably proud of Mr. Gray. We applaud him for his exemplary record of service to the nation and ultimately, to the world.”
Read more: Civil rights lawyer Fred Gray receives honorary degree from University of Alabama
Montgomery’s Jeff Davis Avenue renamed in honor of Fred Gray
Rosa Parks’ attorney says goal was to solve the bus problem
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