Legendary Civil Rights attorney Fred Gray appeared on campus this week, sharing with wisdom and candor stories about his never-ending efforts to “destroy everything segregated I could find.” In a special morning-long forum and lecture, Gray—the former attorney for Rosa Parks, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Tuskegee Syphilis Study victims—spoke to an audience in the Massey Performing Arts Center consisting of Belmont students, faculty and staff along with members of the community and students from Meharry Medical College, Tennessee State University and 85 eighth graders from nearby Rose Park Middle School.
The opening panel discussion featured Gray along with special guests Dr. Henry Foster, Jr., professor emeritus and former dean of the Meharry College School of Medicine and nominee for U.S. Surgeon General under President Bill Clinton; Dwight Lewis, columnist and member of the editorial board for The Tennessean ; and John Seigenthaler, founding editorial director of USA Today, founder of the First Amendment Center and award-winning journalist who briefly left his career in the 1960s to work in the civil rights field. The panel was moderated by Harry Chapman, Belmont’s director of development and major gifts.
The session opened with a timely conversation on healthcare, a subject close to Gray’s heart given his work representing the victims in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Gray said, “When you use human beings as subject of research, they have certain rights, and those rights should be of paramount concern.”
The bulk of the day’s conversation, however, revolved around the Civil Rights movement and Gray’s determination to make a difference, even from a young age. Throughout the morning he shared details of the Montgomery bus boycott and the role he played along with other early Civil Rights pioneers. In fact, at a dinner event Tuesday night, Gray was given the first Belmont College of Law “Champions of Justice” award. Seigenthaler said, “I admire Belmont University so much for having [Fred Gray] here… We must never forget what he did to try to end segregation.”
“There were many unsung heroes who gave the moral courage that made it possible to have a Civil Rights movement and elect the 44th president of the United States,” Gray noted. “I want to challenge you all that the Civil Rights movement is not over. The struggle for equal justice has not been achieved.”
Presented by Belmont’s Gordon E. Inman College of Health Sciences and Nursing “Diagnosing Our Future” speaker series, Gray’s appearance was also co-sponsored by Belmont’s College of Law, the Office of Spiritual Development and the Center for Community Health and Health Equity.
Gray began his legal career as a sole practitioner, less than a year out of law school, and at age 24, he represented Mrs. Rosa Parks who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus, the action that initiated the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Gray was also Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s first civil rights lawyer. This was the beginning of a legal career that now spans more than 45 years.
In the early 1970s, Gray represented the victims of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. For 40 years the U.S. Public Health Service had conducted an experiment on hundreds of black men in the late stages of syphilis, withholding information and treatment for the condition for more than 300 men in the control group. In 1974, Gray filed a class action suit that provided a $10 million out-of-court settlement for those men and their families, and it was Gray who later encouraged President Bill Clinton to issue an apology to the victims on behalf of the U.S. government in 1997.
Gray has been at the forefront of changing the social fabric of America regarding desegregation, integration, constitutional law, racial discrimination in voting, housing, education, jury service, farm subsidies, medicine and ethics, and generally in improving the national judicial system.
Gray was born in Montgomery, Alabama, and is a graduate of the Nashville Christian Institute, Alabama State University and Case Western Reserve University. Currently, he is senior partner at the law firm of Gray, Langford, Sapp, McGowan, Gray & Nathanson, which has law offices in Tuskegee and Montgomery, Alabama. He served as president of the Alabama State Bar Association in 2002-03, the first African-American to hold the position.