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President Biden to Award Alabama State University Alumnus Fred Gray Presidential Medal of Freedom!

President Biden to Award Alabama State University Alumnus Fred Gray Presidential Medal of Freedom!
Posted By: Reggie Culpepper on July 01, 2022

By Kenneth Mullinax/ASU (Lois Russell contributed to this article)

One of Alabama State University's most iconic alumni is scheduled to receive one of the highest honors that may be bestowed upon a United States’ civilian - The Presidential Medal of Freedom.
ASU alumnus and internationally renowned civil rights attorney, Fred D. Gray, Sr. (ASU 1951), will be awarded the medal in a special ceremony that will be held in the East Room of The White House on July 7, by President Joe Biden. The medal is given by the President to honor individuals who have "made an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."

At age 91, Gray is still an actively practicing attorney. He was selected to receive the award because of his lifetime of dedication to and advocacy for the cause of human rights. Gray has been the legal mastermind behind many of the nation’s pivotal civil rights cases, particularly during the birth of the modern civil rights movement in 1955 when he defended Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Gray’s prominence grew throughout his decades-long career as he successfully defended a succession of history-making cases such as his representation of the plaintiffs in the “Tuskegee Syphilis Study,” which involved doctors leaving black men untreated for the disease for decades.

“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 devoted 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 joins the ranks of other notable Alabamians who have previously received the presidential honor, including Congressman John Lewis; baseball Hall of Fame member, Willie Mays; early advocate for the disabled, Helen Keller; Alabama football coach, Paul 'Bear' Bryant; and Pulitzer-prize winning author, Harper Lee.

In a recent interview, Gray credited his ASU political science professor, Dr. J.E. Pierce, with provoking his interest in civil rights issues and to the mentorship he received from him as a young Alabama State University student. Pierce’s influence inspired Gray to change his career goal from being an educator to becoming an attorney.

"Professor Pierce held special sway over many Alabama State students who took classes from him and that he mentored, which included me and two other members of the class of 1951, F. D. Reese of Selma and Fred Shuttlesworth of Birmingham, who also became important leaders in the Civil Rights Movement," Gray said. "Professor Pierce explained to us that we had to invest in making sure that all black people had the same rights, protections, privileges and equal justice that any white citizen had in the nation."

Gray explained that Pierce taught them that basic freedoms for all people was why the Allies in World War II fought and defeated **** Germany and the fascists in both Japan and Italy -- and America deserved the same.

"An ASU professor lit a fire in me that still burns brightly to this day that made my life goal to destroy all things segregated, which I have been reasonably successful in accomplishing," Gray explained.

ASU President, Dr. Quinton T. Ross, Jr., said the Presidential Medal of Freedom recognizes Gray for his singular role in the fight for human rights.

“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. He has carried the banner of ‘O’ Mother Dear’ high throughout his career, and this award from the nation’s highest office is a well-deserved recognition of his efforts.”

Alabama Congresswoman Terri Sewell (D. - 07) made the official recommendation to President Biden to select Gray to be one of the award recipients for 2022.

"Words cannot describe my excitement as we learn that President Biden will award Attorney Fred Gray, Sr. the Presidential Medal of Freedom!” celebrated Sewell. “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. 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."

“I among others have fought hard to ensure that Attorney Gray receives rightful recognition for his groundbreaking contributions to the Civil Rights Movement, and I am overjoyed that President Biden will be giving him his 'flowers' as he lives,” said Sewell.

Gray offers thanks for the award.

“I want to thank President Joseph R. Biden for his decision to award me the Presidential Medal of Freedom, indeed a high honor for which I am most appreciative,” said Gray. “Thank you, Congresswoman Sewell for nominating me for this award. Thanks to many persons from all walks of life who sent a communication to the President requesting that he bestow this honor.”

The chairman of ASU’s Department of History and Political Science, Dr. Derryn Moten, has advocated relentlessly for many years for Gray to receive the award.

“Fred Gray joined a coterie of local attorneys that litigated against Jim Crow throughout the South," Moten said. "In the NAACP's (banned in Alabama in 1956) goal of full equality, these black men and women were the tip of the spear. Fred Gray did this work in the state that proclaimed ‘segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.’ Gray, also a minister, personified Joshua in the battle of Jericho. Because of Fred Gray's lifelong quest to destroy ‘everything segregated he found,’ our state and our nation are closer to achieving 'Equal Justice Under Law.' For these reasons, and more, Fred D. Gray, Sr., deserves the Presidential Medal of Freedom,” Moten exclaimed.

Gray was born on Dec. 14, 1930, in Montgomery, Ala., and was ordained a Christian minister as a teenager. Following high school, he received a Bachelor of Science degree from Alabama State College for Negroes in 1951 (today's Alabama State University) and a law degree in 1954 from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Gray then returned to Montgomery to open his private law practice while also serving as a minister at the Holt Street Church of Christ.
Gray became one of the first two African-Americans to serve in the Alabama Legislature since the Reconstruction era when he was elected in 1970 to the Alabama State Legislature as a representative from Tuskegee.

Gray's numerous honors includes a 2022 honorary doctorate from Princeton University, the American Bar Association’s Equal Justice Award, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Drum Major Award and the World Conference of Mayors’ Legal Award. Also, he was elected president of the Alabama State Bar Association in 2001.

Gray first came to national prominence representing Rosa Parks after she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man and move to the back of a segregated Montgomery city bus. That case caused him to work with ASU faculty member Jo Ann Robinson, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and E. D. Nixon in organizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 - 1956 for which he filed the legal petition that challenged the constitutionality of Alabama state laws mandating segregation on buses (Browder v. Gayle). In November 1956, Gray won the case, as the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the lower court **** that racial segregation on public transportation was unconstitutional.
Historians concur that the importance of the many legal cases that Gray advocated, petitioned and represented in the local, state and federal court systems are among the most important adjudications in the history of America's modern civil rights struggle.

Gray's landmark legal victories include his representation of the bus boycotters in “Alabama v. King;” being the lead attorney in “Dixon v. Alabama” (1961) that established due process rights for ASU and other students at public universities; “Gomillion v. Lightfoot” (1962) a case that laid the foundation for "one man, one vote;" and “Williams v. Wallace” (1965), that allowed the Selma to Montgomery March to take place, paving the way for the 1965 U.S. Voting Rights Act. Gray also successfully represented Vivian Malone and James Hood so they might attend the University of Alabama despite Governor George Wallace's infamous “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” incident. He also successfully led desegregation efforts at the University of North Alabama and Auburn University. In all, the lawsuits filed by Gray helped desegregate more than 100 local school systems, as well as all public colleges and universities in Alabama.

"It was the greatest privilege of my longstanding legal career to work alongside and represent Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 'Alabama v. King' as well as in various other important desegregation cases filed by me from Alabama courtrooms all the way to the United States Supreme Court for Dr. King and a host of other brave men and women who stood up at great peril of their lives for equality and justice for all," said Gray, in a recent interview with ASU media on the publication of his new book "Alabama v. King."

The list of Gray’s early clients is extensive and included bus protestor's Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin, King’s Montgomery Improvement Association, the local branch and state conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Montgomery Progressive Democratic Association.

Dr. King once was quoted as describing Gray as "The brilliant young negro who later became the chief counsel for the protest movement.”

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is among the highest civilian awards in the United States. It was established in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy.

Considered the supreme civilian decoration in the United States, the award was created through Executive Order 11085, which calls for the medal to be awarded annually on or around July 4, and at other convenient times as chosen by the President. Recipients are selected by the President, either on the President's own initiative or based on recommendations that are made to him.
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