Fred Gray: Lawyer for Rosa Parks, MLK Jr., Dr. Gomillion

Fred Gray, now 88 years old, is one of the major lawyers of the civil-rights movement, though my sense is he is less well-known nationally than he ought to be, perhaps because he has spent his life in Alabama. Randy Maniloff just did a long interview with Fred, and I learned a good deal new from it (some excerpts to follow).

As a brief introduction, Fred represented Rosa Parks in the Montgomery bus boycott and won that issue before the Supreme Court. He represented Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a number of cases, including when King was tried in Alabama for perjury, regarding his tax filings — Fred managed to get an all-white jury to find King not guilty. And he was the winning lawyer in the famous Gomillion v. Lightfoot case.

I got to know Fred in the 1990s, when I was in Alabama working on an article on cumulative voting. Fred was a central figure in the Alabama Democratic Conference, the organization formed right after Gomillion to protect minority voting rights in Alabama. I then had had the honor of representing the ADC before the Supreme Court a few years ago, in a case we won arguing that Alabama had engaged in unconstitutional racial gerrymandering in dozens of state legislative districts.

Here are some excerpts from the interview, which is behind a paywall at I picked out some items likely to be of most interest to readers of this blog (I have permission from the copyright holder to run these):

With a career like Fred Gray’s, the obvious question is whether one case stands out as most significant. Gray said yes. It is Gomillion v. Lightfoot, a case that laid the foundation for the concept of “one man, one vote.” In 1960, Gray convinced the Supreme Court that the city limits of Tuskegee had been gerrymandered for the purpose of excluding African Americans from voting in municipal elections.

Gray had been concerned about getting Justice Frankfurter’s vote. He shared with me that, during oral argument, Frankfurter was shocked to learn something about the new boundaries of Tuskegee that had been drawn. “You mean to tell me,” Frankfurter asked Gray, incredulously, “that Tuskegee Institute is outside the city limits of the City of Tuskegee?” Frankfurter authored the court’s unanimous decision. ….

In an interesting judicial confluence, the King perjury trial is directly related to New York Times v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court’s landmark 1964 decision setting out the standard for a public official to bring a defamation claim. The New York Times advertisement at issue in Sullivan, that allegedly libeled a Montgomery public safety officer, had, as one of its purposes, raising funds for King’s defense in his tax case. Here, too, Gray was involved—representing four ministers accused of libel in connection with the ad. They lost, until the Supreme Court had its say, following its adoption of an “actual malice” standard for a public official to bring an action for defamation.

Regarding his successful effort to get the Supreme Court to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson, Gray says:

“The real issue that we get from the bus boycott,” Gray said, “is the fact that other people realized, if we could see what they did there, use that, add something else to it, and we’ll be able to solve our problems, whatever they are, where people are being mistreated and being denied their constitutional rights.”
Because of segregation, Fred Gray could not to the University of Alabama Law School. So he went instead to the Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland (after attending the Alabama State College for Negroes). Why did Fred decide to go to law school, instead of pursuing the career as a preacher he initially had in mind?

“Destroy everything segregated I could find.” This, Fred Gray told me, was the reason he went to law school


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