Tuesday, January 18, 2011
MLK, Jr.’s civil rights lawyer stirred a supportive crowd at the Winspear
He tells us, "I went on to finish college and law school and came back with the intent to destroy everything related to segregation."
DALLAS Fred Gray is veteran civil rights lawyer who represented Rosa Parks and served as the civil rights lawyer for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He went on to represent the infamous case of Pollard vs. United States of America, which involved the illegal experimentation of rural black males in Macon County, Alabama. While serving with the Alabama Legislature, he was one of the first to submit a bill to create a holiday in King’s memory.
The theme of the night was based loosely upon a segment King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in which King asserts that a paradox of justice existed in the United States and “there are two types of laws: just and unjust.” Hosted by Dr. Larry Allums, executive director of The Dallas Institute, the evening began with Gray, who gave what could be considered a testimony of his experience in the civil rights movement.
He re-told the organizing of the Montgomery Bus Boycott with a passionate reflection of a past that changes the future. He reminded the engaged audience that “civil rights was a deep seeded problem that existed long before the boycott,” and that there were many key players and unsung heroes, such as the 15-year-old Claudette Colvin.
Although great strides have been made in the African-American community since the spark of 1955 which ignited the civil rights movement, Gray admitted: "We are still confronted with these issues" which can only be tackled if we "acknowledge racism still exists, come up with a plan and execute it, however do not expect someone else to solve the problem," he told the crowd.
We were stirred by his speech, as well as the personal conversation we had with him earlier on Monday:
PegNews: How did you become involved with the civil rights movement?
Gray: Actually I entered the civil rights movement when I was a student at University of Alabama, because of the conditions that existed on the buses. Everything then was completely segregated. I witnessed the fact that if a person of color had a problem with unfair treatment at the hands of a white person, they couldn't get a lawyer. I decided to go to law school, not challenging the University of Alabama at the time because I knew they would accept me. I went on to finish college and law school and came back with the intent to destroy everything related to segregation. After passing the state bar in both Ohio and Alabama in 1954, I have been working on civil rights cases since then. It was a personal commitment. The bus situation in Montgomery was what motivated me to become a lawyer and see if I could change these things.
PegNews: With the progression of “minorities,” are there still civil rights issues to be fought -- or have they evolved into something different beyond race?
Gray: We have made a tremendous amount of progress. We have gained a great deal but we still have problems to go.
PegNews: Are you surprised about issues such as Jena 6, church burnings, and the increasing of hate crimes, where African-Americans are not always the target, while Hispanics, Muslims, and members of the GLBT community are?
Gray: I think the difference between human and civil rights is not very unlike at all. Even though they took the education system and de-segregated it, you still have inferior instances of educational institutions across this nation. Our whole education system still has vestiges of racism seeded in it. You have a disparage between the majority and the minority. For instance, we have more young black men who are incarcerated than in institutions of higher learning. The Urban League reported that decades after the civil rights movement, the discrimination continues in housing, income, and various other areas.
PegNews: Do you foresee a time when we won’t have to deal with an individual’s human rights being violated?
Gray: It’s not going to happen by itself. I would like to believe that at some time it will end. ... People tend to not want to acknowledged racism and discrimination, but it’s wrong and it’s not going to go away by itself. Once we recognize that fact, that race is still a problem, we have to develop a plan. Like Montgomery Bus boycott; it was not an accident, we had been working on this plan since the arrest of Claudette Colvin, and planted the seed so that others could duplicate the event, and it ended up turning into the civil rights movement. This problem is so vast that it will take federal, state, local, the family, the church, demonstrations, and legal aspects to get this thing right. Each of us must work toward obtaining equal justice under that law. We cannot depend on anyone else to do, we must do it ourselves.
Jeffrey Toobin also spoke at the event Monday, and he took a more judicial approach to the topic of the evening, focusing on the successes of law suits that helped to bring about change in this country. He pointed out noted cases that help break down the barriers of segregation, not just in social situations but also in education and employment. Toobin stated that the memory of King evolved into this strong and revered pillar; however, he reminds that King was at his time a very controversial figure in the United States, and during his life time there were many who dared not revere or respect him.
Toobin said his favorite quote from King is, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." But he added that "it bends toward justice as long as people continue to push it that way."
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