Most people of a certain age remember where they were in the seminal moments of their lives, like November 22, 1963, the day President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, or the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. I also think about the much-anticipated arrival of the new millennium when the clock struck midnight on January 1, 2000, and the world continued with hardly any of the technological glitches that were feared or predicted.
This week we remember the seminal moment on April 4, 1968, the evening when we heard that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN. Dr. King was in that city to speak to striking sanitation workers.
I was a sophomore college student in Atlanta, and when word reached our dormitory, I had just completed a load of laundry in the basement of my Spelman College dormitory. I was walking up the stairs to my second-floor room when someone screamed the news that Dr. King had been shot to death. I remember dropping my basket of clothes on the steps as I lowered myself and began to cry in anger and fear. Our “King” was gone!
Fast forward 50 years, to my life as a retiree and volunteer in Savannah, GA. after more than 45 years in a journalism career that took me to several states to work for newspapers and universities. I now work closely in a volunteer capacity with the local MLK, Jr., Observance Day Association, Inc., a non-profit organization that sponsors several annual events to commemorate the life and legacy of Dr. King.
Our planning committee spent the past few months preparing for the 2018 MLK Freedom Gala, a black-tie event that we knew would raise the organization’s profile at the end of the weeks-long celebrations in Savannah. We needed a speaker who would present information from a deep understanding of the Civil Rights movement and challenge those in attendance to keep working toward the goals of human rights and racial equality.
My last newsroom assignment was as executive editor of the Montgomery Advertiser, the daily newspaper in Alabama’s capital city. From my almost nine years in Montgomery I knew about the great work of Attorney Fred Gray, a man who was a very young lawyer when Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in December 1955 ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Mr. Gray represented the Montgomery Improvement Association, Mrs. Parks and Dr. King in the 1950s.
It was my honor to ask Mr. Gray and his wife, Carol, to travel to Savannah for the March 31 Freedom Gala. I was also honored to be able to introduce Mr, Gray to an audience of almost 350 people of all ages, including quite a few college students and young lawyers.
But my biggest honor of this 50th anniversary celebration of civil rights history and commemoration of the life of Dr. King, was when Fred Gray said my introduction of him may have been the best he’s ever heard. Here is a man 87 years of age, a man who has spoken to groups all over the world, a man who has written several books, who is cited in most law textbooks and who founded a history museum in Tuskegee where he lives — and he was praising ME! My heart almost stopped in a moment of pride and reflection.
Mr. Gray asked for a copy of my introduction and here I share excerpts of that introduction.
“When I moved to Montgomery, Alabama, in 2004, one year before the 50th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, I immediately heard the name Fred Gray, the attorney who was one of the foot soldiers in the boycott, who represented the Montgomery Improvement Association, Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“I was executive editor of the Montgomery Advertiser and when I arrived at the newspaper, the staff was already working on a book to chronicle the bus boycott for the 50th anniversary of that seminal event, when African-Americans in Montgomery walked for 381 days instead of using public transportation that forced black people to ride in the back of buses.
“Mr. Gray has been a giant in civil rights litigation for more than six decades, after he graduated from Alabama State College, and then Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1954. The list of civil rights cases he has won can be found in many constitutional law textbooks.
“He was a very young lawyer in Montgomery in March 1955 when Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old African-American high school student, refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. In December 1955 he represented Rosa Parks who was arrested because she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. Mrs. Parks’ action ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
“Mr. Gray has chronicled much of his life in books, including ‘Bus Ride to Justice’ and ‘The Tuskegee Syphilis Study.’
“In the introduction to ‘Bus Ride to Justice,’ he wrote about a time when he entered the U.S. Supreme Court. This story may give you some insight into his early life and how young he was when his career started:
“ ‘In 1956 I had won an appeal in which the Supreme Court had affirmed a lower court’s ruling in my favor that segregated seating on Montgomery’s city buses was unconstitutional. That was the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott case, which I had filed when I was only 25 years old. But this was my first time to appear in person before the Court.
“ ‘I entered the courtroom as another case was being argued. As I sat and listened, I felt weak with apprehension. I remembered my childhood in Montgomery. How could I, a black man born in an Alabama ghetto, whose father died when I was two years old and whose mother had only a sixth-grade education, argue a case before the United States Supreme Court?
“ ‘When I was a boy, I never dreamed of visiting the United States Supreme Court. Now I was ready to speak to the Court’.”
“In 1957, Mr. Gray fulfilled his mother’s dream by becoming a licensed preacher of the Churches of Christ. In 1974, after he had moved to Tuskegee, he helped merge the denomination’s white and black churches in Tuskegee.
“Here are some other things you should know about our speaker.
“Mr. Gray is the senior managing shareholder in the law firm of Gray, Langford, Sapp, McGowan, Gray, Gray & Nathanson, with offices in Montgomery and Tuskegee.
“In Lee v. Macon, Mr. Gray filed suits that integrated all state institutions of higher learning in Alabama, and 104 of the then 121 elementary and secondary school systems in the state. He was counsel in preserving and protecting the rights of persons involved in the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study in 1972.
“In 1993, he argued on behalf of Alabama State University, the case in which the court held that there were still vestiges of racial discrimination in higher education in Alabama.
“In 1970-1974, he was one of the first African-Americans to serve in the Alabama Legislature since reconstruction.
“In 1997 Mr. Gray founded (and subsequently served as president and board member of) the Tuskegee History Center. This nonprofit corporation operates a museum and offers educational resources about the Tuskegee Syphilis Study.
“He has also been portrayed in cultural projects — the movie Selma, which dramatizes the Selma to Montgomery marches, the film Boycott, a stage play entitled The Integration of Tuskegee High School, and the TV One movie Behind the Movement,
“In 2002, after it’s 127-year history, Mr. Gray was the first person of color elected as president of the Alabama State Bar Association.
“Mr. Gray was interviewed in 2005 for the Montgomery Advertiser’s book ‘They Walked to Freedom: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.’ I had the pleasure of editing that book and we included a chapter entitled ‘In His Own Words — Fred Gray.’ In the chapter, Mr. Gray talked about his many rides on Montgomery buses when he was in school and working part-time.
“ ‘While I never had an altercation myself on the bus,’ he said, ‘I was very concerned about how African-Americans were treated on buses.
“ ‘In those days if you were a person of color, your chances of getting justice were not very good. … We didn’t have any black lawyers then. The white lawyers were afraid that if they took a case like that (referring to the civil rights cases) it would interrupt their other cases, so there were not many lawyers who would do it. So I made a secret commitment that I was going to not only be a preacher, but that I was going to be a lawyer’. ”
I ended by introducing Fred Gray as “a lawyer, an elder in the Tuskegee Churches of Christ … an author and a civil rights icon.”
Now 50 years after Dr. King’s assassination, find someone who was around at that time, someone who was a foot soldier for civil and human rights in communities across the nation. Talk to them about that day, that moment when our “King” was killed and ask them how they hope those of us with energy to carry on will help move us toward Dr. King’s vision for a “Beloved Community.”