Bus Ride to Justice: A Conversation with Fred Gray

By Entin, Jonathan L. | Case Western Reserve Law Review, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

Bus Ride to Justice: A Conversation with Fred Gray


Entin, Jonathan L., Case Western Reserve Law Review


In the fall of 1951, Fred Gray, an African American from Montgomery, Alabama, enrolled in what was then called the Western Reserve University School of Law. His goal was to become a lawyer and return home to destroy everything segregated he could find. (1)

Not long after he graduated from this law school and opened a law office back home, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white man. Fred Gray, who had not yet reached his twenty-fifth birthday, was Rosa Parks's lawyer. Mrs. Parks's arrest led to the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott, which was coordinated by the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). Fred Gray was the lawyer for that organization. The MIA's most prominent leader was a previously unknown young minister named Martin Luther King Jr. Fred Gray was Dr. King's lawyer. Mr. Gray filed the lawsuit in which the Supreme Court vindicated the boycott by striking down Montgomery's bus-segregation ordinance.

The bus case, Gayle v. Browder, (2) was one of four landmark Supreme Court cases in which he played a prominent role. In addition, Mr. Gray was part of the legal team in NAACP v. Alabama ex rel. Patterson, (3) an important freedom-of-association case that protected organizational membership lists from disclosure to hostile government officials; he argued Gomillion v. Lightfoot, (4) the Tuskegee gerrymandering case that helped to lay the groundwork for the reapportionment revolution that began with Baker v. Carr; (5) and he represented the black ministers who were sued in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, (6) the landmark case that applied the First Amendment to the law of defamation in order to protect robust political debate.

These cases occurred during Fred Gray's first decade as a lawyer, but they are only highlights of his extraordinary six-decade career in the law. He has been involved in almost every major civil rights case in Alabama since he became a lawyer, representing freedom riders, (7) sit-in demonstrators, (8) and students seeking to desegregate public schools, colleges, and universities throughout the state. (9) He also filed the federal lawsuit that led to protection for the Selma-Montgomery march, (10) which helped to secure passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, (11) and later litigated important cases under that statute. Moreover, Fred Gray was one of the first two African Americans elected to the Alabama legislature after Reconstruction. Last but by no means least, he represented the victims of the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment, obtaining a financial settlement as well as a formal apology from the President of the United States. (12)

This is the briefest possible summary of the remarkable career of one of the great members of the American legal profession and an unsung hero of the civil rights movement. Two decades ago, Fred Gray published a memoir, Bus Ride to Justice. (13) I reviewed the memoir in the Journal of Legal Education. (14) Last year, he brought out an updated edition that added some reflections on his earlier activities and incorporated more recent developments, including his election as the first black president of the Alabama State Bar Association, his receipt of the American Bar Association's Thurgood Marshall Award, his continuing involvement in civil rights litigation, and his founding of the Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center, which chronicles the contributions of the diverse population of the local area and of the American Southeast to the development of our nation. (15)

The editors of the Case Western Reserve Law Review responded to my query about reviewing the revised edition by proposing instead that I interview Mr. Gray. On October 30, 2013, he and I spoke before a packed house at the law school. What follows is a very lightly edited version of our conversation. It has been one of the highlights of my academic career and one of the greatest honors of my life to count Fred Gray as a friend. …

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