Public Relations  >  News Center  >  News Releases  >  January 2018  >  January 16, 2018  >  Civil rights icon and attorney the Rev. Fred Gray shares insights from a 63-year career
Civil rights icon and attorney the Rev. Fred Gray shares insights from a 63-year career

Creighton welcomed civil rights icon and attorney the Rev. Fred Gray, center, to campus on Monday, Jan. 15, 2018, for the School of Law's annual Lane Lecture. Presenting Gray with the 2018 Presidential Citation are, at right, Creighton President the Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ, and, at left, Dean Michael Kelly, JD, of the School of Law.Walking up the steps to the U.S. Supreme Court as a 29-year-old lawyer in 1960 to argue a racial gerrymandering case, the Rev. Fred Gray carried his briefcase in one hand a map of the city of Tuskegee, Alabama, in the other.

As he set up the map, on which the original city limits of Tuskegee were superimposed over legislatively redrawn boundaries that cut off black participation in city elections, Justice Felix Frankfurter asked the young lawyer what he planned to display. Gray described his map. Frankfurter then asked where the storied Tuskegee Institute, home of Booker T. Washington and the heroic airmen of World War II, could be found in the city.

“It can’t,” Gray said. “This act excludes the Tuskegee Institute.”

“You mean to say the Tuskegee Institute is not in the city limits of Tuskegee?” Frankfurter asked, incredulous.

“No, sir,” responded Gray, who was an Alabama native and living in Tuskegee. Frankfurter went on to issue the majority opinion in the landmark case, Gomillion v. Lightfoot, deciding in favor of Gray’s argument that the gerrymander violated the 15th Amendment. And another block in the great segregationist wall began to crumble.

For more than an hour Monday afternoon at Creighton University, Gray, a prominent civil rights attorney and pastor who defended, among thousands of others, Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin in the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, related to a packed Hixson-Lied Auditorium similar stories and lessons he’s taken away from a lifetime of work in the field.

As the 2018 Lane Lecturer for the Creighton School of Law, Gray was joined on stage by Creighton Law alumnus Greg Rhodes, JD’81, and Kai Wahrmann-Harry, a second-year law student and vice president of Creighton’s Black Law Students Association chapter. They engaged a conversation ranging from Gray’s work to help desegregate Alabama’s public schools to his leadership in getting justice for hundreds of African-American men who were unwitting human subjects in a study of syphilis secretly conducted by the federal government.

“The civil rights movement is a composite of a whole lot of people doing different things,” Gray said. “Many of us then were young people and going through it, you don’t really think about age. But I knew that the white people of Alabama were going to have the best lawyers on their side. The question I always had was whether Fred Gray was going to be able to go up against those experienced lawyers.”

He was able. And with justice and right on his side, he quite often won in the face of unrelenting pressure and adversity in lower courts.

“People remember the big clients,” Gray said. “But there are thousands of nameless clients in there who made a difference, too. All these clients over 63 years who gave a young lawyer of African descent a chance to represent them, they’re not the ones you know, like Rosa Parks, but they had a big impact, too.”

To note the lecture and the day, what would have been the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 89th birthday, Gray presented Creighton University President the Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ, with a copy of his book, Bus Ride to Justice, and copies of other mementos from his civil rights work. Gray was honored with the University's 2018 Presidential Citation.

“It was very informative and enlightening,” Wahrmann-Harry said. “For many of us who may not have heard about some of these topics he raises in his book, like the syphilis study, it’s important that we be here and get this kind of an educational conversation going.”

Given Gray’s tenure in civil rights and his work with those clients who might otherwise be unknown in the movement’s long and crucial history, Oluseyi Olowolafe, president of the Creighton chapter of the Black Law Students Association, said Gray’s recounting of legal proceedings that had such a definitive impact on American life could be summed up in one word.

“Inspiring,” Olowolafe said. “It speaks volumes that someone has dedicated their life to the service of others like Rev. Gray has. He is one of those unsung heroes he talked about, too. We see Martin Luther King Jr., we see Malcolm X. Sometimes we don’t see what a major role someone like Rev. Gray has played, but he was one of those moving parts. He’s an icon. For future attorneys, that’s an inspiration to us to make a difference in the lives of others.”

Gray appeared at several other events in the Omaha area over the weekend to commemorate Dr. King and the civil rights movement, at each stop generating candid and important conversations about not just the historical movement, but the work still ongoing. At Creighton, he cited the University’s mission as running alongside that of the movement.

“The work I have tried to do in these last 63 years, I see your University doing the same work,” he said. “I saw a problem when I was a teenager and I said that becoming a lawyer, I might be able to do something about it. I see this University working in that same vein.”

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