Civil rights attorney Fred Gray ‘humbled’ by Medal of Freedom

Gray accepted on behalf of clients who have trusted him over the last 67 years
Published: Jul. 7, 2022 at 11:47 AM CDT|Updated: Jul. 7, 2022 at 6:08 PM CDT
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WASHINGTON (WSFA) - Montgomery native and famed civil rights attorney Fred D. Gray Sr., was in the nation’s capital Thursday to receive one of the highest civilian honors attainable, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Gray, who still practices law in Tuskegee at the age of 91, was among 17 recipients honored in a White House ceremony, hosted by President Joe Biden.

“This award means a great deal to me, an African American civil rights lawyer who was born in the ghettos of Montgomery, Alabama,” Gray said in a statement. “I am honored, appreciative and humbled that the President has awarded me the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Honored, because when I was growing up I never dreamed of being in the White House, not to mention receiving this high honor.”

Gray thanked the organizations and those who sent messages to the Biden administration in support of bestowing the honor, but he specifically called out U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-District 7, for nominating him.

The honor comes after more than a year of lobbying Biden’s administration by Sewell. She was there when the award was presented.

“Words cannot describe my excitement,” Sewell said in a statement announcing the honor a week ago. “From the very beginning, I’ve known that there is no one more deserving of our nation’s highest civilian honor than Attorney Gray whose trailblazing work helped end segregation and advance a more equitable future. Attorney Gray is one of the most consequential civil rights lawyers of our time.”

Also present for the ceremony was another man who made history in Alabama’s capital city, Mayor Steven Reed, the city’s first African American mayor.

Gray also received congratulations from Gov. Kay Ivey, who said he was “more than deserving” of the honor.

Gray’s storied career includes representation of the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, John Lewis and others whose names have never made it into wide public knowledge.

“When I filed the various civil rights cases from 1955 to date, I was concerned about African Americans receiving the same constitutional rights as all other Americans,” Gray explained. “We have made substantial progress but the struggle for the elimination of racism and for equal justice continues. I hope this award will encourage other Americans to do what they can to complete the task so that all American citizens will be treated the same, equally and fairly, in accordance with the Constitution.”

Gray noted that he humbly accepted the honor on behalf of the clients who trusted him over the last 67 years, particularly for those unknown clients like Claudette Colvin, who at 15, did the same thing as Rosa Parks, only nine months earlier.

Civil Rights attorney Fred D. Gray Sr., takes part in an Oct. 2021 announcement of the...
Civil Rights attorney Fred D. Gray Sr., takes part in an Oct. 2021 announcement of the expungement of arrest records for civil rights icon Claudette Colvin.(Source: WSFA 12 News)

“Many of those cases resulted in breaking down the walls of segregation and changing the landscape in America,” Gray said.

Gray added that he also accepted the honor on behalf of the 623 men in the infamous “Tuskegee Syphilis Study,” those who marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 or who took part in sit-ins and walks, as well as those who have since been able to get a quality, non-segregated education because of the lawsuits he filed or who have been inspired to help solve their own community’s problems.

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