The ABA honored Fred D. Gray, once described by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as “the chief counsel” of the civil rights movement, with the 2023 ABA Medal — the association’s highest honor — on Aug. 5 at the Annual Meeting in Denver.
“I’m honored, I’m appreciative and I’m humbled,” Gray said as he received the award from ABA President Deborah Enix-Ross.
Gray played a crucial role in many of the biggest moments in civil rights history in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. He represented Rosa Parks and was the chief legal strategist during the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 and 1956. He represented the marchers during the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights marches of 1965. And he represented the victims of the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study, obtaining a settlement for the survivors in 1975 and an apology from President Bill Clinton, on the government’s behalf, in 1997, among other landmark cases.
Gray, who at 92 still practices law with the firm Gray, Langford, Sapp, McGowan, Gray & Nathanson in Tuskegee and Montgomery, Alabama, said his goal was “to destroy everything segregated I could find.” He told the audience that “as lawyers our primary responsibility is to render service … so that all of the people of this country will be able to enjoy of the rights and privileges that they have.”
He accepted the award on behalf of his clients, saying that “the struggle for equal justice continues.”
An ABA member since 1959, Gray told the audience to do what Rep. John Lewis told him to do about a week before the congressman’s death: “Keep pushing. Keep going. Set the record straight.” Gray said to do it “in a nonviolent manner and continue to do it until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
The ABA Medal is given to a lawyer for “exceptionally distinguished service ... to the cause of American jurisprudence.” Past recipients include Stephen G. Breyer, Bryan Stevenson, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Ted Olsen and David Boies and Hillary Rodham Clinton.