Rosa Parks’ simple act of cataclysmic defiance in 1955 has been immortalized not only for its own glorious sake but also for the fact that Parks showed by sitting down that she was standing up for America’s future that the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. would declare from the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.
Parks ended up in trouble with the law for daring to be treated with dignity. But the seamstress, who was also the Montgomery, Alabama chapter secretary of the NAACP, had lit a fire to very dry leaves of social discontentment. The Montgomery Bus Boycott began on December 5, the day Parks was found guilty and fined $14, four for court costs.
The bus boycott in Montgomery was not the first in the history of Black Americans clamoring for their dignity by disturbing a city’s public transport system. Yet, it was the immediate spark of a truly national civil rights plan of civil disobedience as a course of action.
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Parks’ story and the effects it caused are very well known. Not as much as a 24-year-old lawyer, Fred Gray, who had helped defend Parks in court in Montgomery. Gray committed his life to the struggle at a very young age, choosing to become a lawyer to make the case in courts, instead of becoming his first passion, a historian.
Born in Montgomery in 1930, Gray was made and mended by the intentionally divisive sociopolitics of America’s south. He received his baccalaureate degree in 1951 and had to move to Cleveland, Ohio to pursue legal education because at the time, no school in Alabama would teach a Black man or woman to become a lawyer. At the Cape Western Reserve University School of Law in 1954, Gray received a juris doctor.
He went on to pass the bar examination and set up an office in his hometown. Convinced that his worth laid in seeking justice for African-Americans, Gray married his profession to the NAACP’s ambitions. Parks’ case would come in 1955 and that would spell the beginning of a rather successful legal career.
For instance, in 1961, Gray along with the likes of the venerated Thurgood Marshall defended six appellants against the Alabama State College’s expulsion (in loco parentis) of the said six appellants for participating in a civil rights march. The ruling, which reinstated the students, has been hailed as a landmark call in the history of the treatment of students in American institutions of higher education.
Gray was also responsible for defending in court, the right of citizens to protest in the infamous Selma to Montgomery march. His defense in the 1963 Williams v. Wallace case has been dramatized on screen by Cuba Gooding Jr. in the 2014 film Selma.
He was also responsible for Vivian Malone and James Hood being allowed to attend the University of Alabama in1963 even after the state resisted theintegration of schools following the ruling in Brown vs Board of Education in 1954.
Interestingly too, Gray was the first lawyer MLK ever needed when he took on the role of upending America’s racist social fabric. Gray defended, successfully, King against charges of tax evasion in 1960.
Having now turned 90 but still burning with the passion to see his work continued by contemporary civil rights organizations, Gray is in line to be honored with the name of a street after him. The street is where Gray grew up in Montgomery and it happens to be named after the one and only president of the short-lived Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.
Jefferson Davis Avenue is on an intersection with Rosa L. Parks Avenue, intriguingly. But the proposed honor to Gray, which comes 65 years after the boycott, is facing problems since Alabama’s Memorial Prevention Act, a law passed in 2017, is supposed to curtail the very thing the city wants to do to Jefferson Davis Avenue.
Montgomery’s first Black mayor, Steven Reed, says he is determined to push the City Council to adopt Gray’s name. This would undoubtedly raise another battle, in Alabama of all places, but it would be a battle set in the present Gray has been fighting for in the last six decades.