Fred Gray may not be as well known as other giants of the civil rights movement — names like John Lewis, Rosa Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — his legacy is no less vital.
For his heroics in American history, he received his flowers Thursday night (May 4) from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where the group gave him its Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award.
“I have received many awards, but none of these awards…means to me as much as this award coming from the Legal Defense Fund here in honor of Thurgood Marshall,” said Gray during an acceptance speech at the organization’s 35th National Equal Justice Awards Dinner on Thursday (May 4) in New York. Gray was among several honorees at the dinner, including billionaire Robert F. Smith, chair of Vista Equity Partners, philanthropic company the Emerson Collective, and Nike Inc.’s Jordan Brand.
Gray is 92-years old and still practicing law. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Joe Biden in 2022 for his steadfast work at the forefront of several Civil Rights Movement cases. The most notable is the Supreme Court case in which the NAACP started legal action against the city of Montgomery, Ala. This resulted in the desegregation of the bus system there after the defiance of Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin and others, which resulted in a yearlong bus boycott in 1955 and 1956.
He was also the attorney for men who were unwittingly involved in an experiment conducted in Tuskegee, Ala., by the U.S. government for more than 40 years. In the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, hundreds of people were afflicted with syphilis and went untreated by government doctors who wished to study the effects of the disease. He secured a $10 million settlement for the survivors and their heirs in 1974.
A contemporary of Marshall, these were two of many cases that he handled in a nearly 70-year career in law in defense of Black people and working in tandem with the Legal Defense Fund. During his speech, he explained why he chose working as an attorney as a way of making a difference.
“I became a lawyer in Montgomery, Ala., when I saw we were having problems on the buses,” he said. “They said lawyers help people solve problems, so I decided to become a lawyer, and not just a lawyer anywhere; I wanted to become a lawyer in Alabama and destroy everything segregated I could find, and in 67 years I’ve done that.”