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August 06, 2023

Civil rights icon awarded ABA Medal

“I’m honored, I’m appreciative and I’m humbled,” said Fred D. Gray as he accepted the 2023 ABA Medal — the association’s highest honor — from ABA President Deborah Enix-Ross on Aug. 5 at the Annual Meeting in Denver.

Gray, once described by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as “the chief counsel” of the civil rights movement, played a crucial role in many of the country’s biggest moments 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.

In addition, his legal efforts led to the integration of the University of Alabama and Auburn University. In 1967, he won a court order that integrated all Alabama educational institutions that were not already under court orders.

In 1970, Gray was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives, becoming one of first two first Black Alabama state legislators since Reconstruction. He served in the legislature for 44 years, until 2015.

An ABA member since 1959 who at 92 still practices law with the firm Gray, Langford, Sapp, McGowan, Gray & Nathanson in Tuskegee and Montgomery, Alabama, Gray said his goal was “to destroy everything segregated I could find.”

Speaking of one of his rare losses, Gray recalled that President Jimmy Carter nominated him to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama in 1979. Eventually, in the face of conservative opposition, Gray withdrew his nomination, but not before ensuring that a young black lawyer from Tuskegee would take his place and be confirmed. “It was a tragedy on the one hand,” said Gray, “but I got to practice law with my son. Alabama gained and my family gained, but I’m still sorry I didn’t get that judgeship.”

Previously recognized by the ABA with a Spirit of Excellence Award in 1996 and the Thurgood Marshall Award in 2004, 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” and “we need to continue the task that’s before us.”

Gray recalled what Rep. John Lewis told him to do shortly before the congressman’s death in 2020, “Keep pushing. Keep going. Set the record straight.” The medal winner urged ABA members to do the same, “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.