Civil rights lawyer Gray records another milestone Attorney engineers government apology for Tuskegee Study


When President Clinton apologizes tomorrow to eight frail old men who survived the government's notorious Tuskegee Study, and to the relatives of the dead, Fred Gray will be there -- for a ceremony that is just the latest milestone in 40 years spent working for civil rights.

Gray, a prosperous-looking lawyer in his tasteful dark suits, asked for the presidential apology and is bringing the survivors to Washington.

Not many people will recognize him amid the East Room crowd. Baltimore Circuit Judge Kenneth L. Johnson says more Americans should. "You are dealing with a guy who, a hundred years from now, will be up there with Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King," Johnson says. "He is a great, unassuming person who is an unsung hero."

"There's no question he's underappreciated as a historic figure," says Taylor Branch, author of "Parting the Waters," the Pulitzer -- Prize-winning history of the civil rights movement.

In 1972, Gray filed suit on behalf of the hundreds of participants in the Tuskegee Study -- all poor black men who were never told that they had the deadly disease syphilis. Government doctors followed the men for 40 years, withholding treatment even after penicillin was found to be an easy cure in the 1940s. That suit was settled for $10 million in 1974.

Ten years before that, Gray won a federal court case that held blacks could not systematically be excluded from juries.

Before that, in 1960, he won a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that said gerrymandering to dilute black voting strength is unconstitutional.

And before everything, in 1955, there was Rosa Parks.

When Parks, a department store seamstress, refused to give up her seat to a white person on a Montgomery, Ala., bus in 1955, Fred Gray was her lawyer. He was 25 years old. He believed the courts could help change society.

"What you will find in the civil-rights movement is that lawyers for the most part have been written out of the history, except for Thurgood Marshall," Gray says. "They'll talk about the speeches and the marches, but the speeches and the marches didn't change the spectrum of the law in this country. It was the lawsuits."

The Parks arrest touched off the Montgomery bus boycott, a yearlong show of defiance. It gave Martin Luther King Jr., then a young preacher, a platform for organizing peaceful resistance to segregation laws.

Gray lost Parks' case in the Montgomery court. She was fined $14. But Gray appealed. And the bus boycott continued until the Supreme Court affirmed a federal court ruling that held Alabama's bus-segregation laws were unconstitutional.

'Deserves attention'

Parks, who lives in Detroit, says Gray "deserves attention because he was very concerned about the civil rights movement. He also did quite a bit of legal work for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He was dedicated to the movement."

The Parks case set Gray, who had been moonlighting as a preacher, off on a successful legal career. His name found its way into some history books, but his cases are generally better known than he is.

Fred Gray doesn't mind.

"The whole reason for becoming a lawyer was to work in the movement and to help people," he says.

Fred Gray is tall, serious, recently widowed after 40 years of marriage. The father of four, Gray has two sons who have joined his firm.

Friends say he owns golf clubs no one has seen him use. For recreation, he takes three-mile walks with neighbors around Lake Tuskegee. Sundays, he teaches Bible classes at the Tuskegee Church of Christ and leads services when the minister is away.

His legal practice today includes seven lawyers, black and white.

Friends say he is probably the wealthiest man in Tuskegee.

'Never thought about money'

But for years there was very little money. Black Alabamians involved in civil-rights cases couldn't pay much.

"It wasn't important," Gray says.

"We never thought about money," says Judge Johnson, who was a federal prosecutor in Alabama in the 1960s when he met Gray. "We had a cause."

Fred Gray wasn't allowed to attend law school in 1950s Alabama. That was just how it was. Rather than enroll blacks in white schools, Alabama paid qualified students to attend schools out of state. An honors graduate of the Alabama State College for Negroes, Gray traveled to the Western Reserve University law school in Ohio.

When he came back to Montgomery, a member of the Ohio and Alabama bars, he became only the second black lawyer in town.

Gray set up an office above a Sears Auto Shop and started an ordinary general practice -- wills, title examinations, divorces, a few criminal cases.

But established white lawyers still attracted most blacks' legal work.

"The judges were white. The court personnel were white. The system was white. There were a lot of people coming along who believed a white lawyer could do them more good," he recalls.

Then Rosa Parks -- who remembers Gray as "a very polite and nice young man, quite serious about his work" -- was arrested. And the bus boycott started.

"Everybody knows about Martin leading the bus boycott," says J. L. Chestnut, who was the only black lawyer in Selma in the mid-1950s. "They don't know about Fred and all these other people leading this other battle.

"Fred Gray has been involved in monumental litigation that really affects the fabric of life in this country."

Two monumental struggles

Why isn't he better known?

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was a series of battles fought in the streets and in the courts. The street fighting drew much more attention.

"Thirty years ago, in the 1960s, there was this monumental struggle in the streets of Alabama: marches, singing, demonstrations, police dogs, blood, tears," says Chestnut, now a partner in Alabama's largest black law firm. "That was on the nightly news.

"At the same time, a monumental struggle was going on in the state and federal courts. This was out of sight, out of mind -- slow and tedious work. Even the people active then were unaware of this quiet struggle going on in the courts," Chestnut says.

Gray's colleagues say he rarely discusses the history he helped make. The Rev. Willie Butler, minister of the integrated congregation at the Tuskegee Church of Christ, says he often has to prompt Gray to recount some of his stories about early struggles.

But most of the time, Butler says, Gray just says, "You tell it."

Fighting with law books

He does talk to students, particularly law school classes and new graduates.

"What I tell young lawyers all the time," Gray says, "is that we were able to go into the law books and find ways and means to fight racial discrimination. They should be able to go into the law books to find the ways and means to fight economic disparity."

In Tuskegee, the Gray Building, with brass lanterns and stucco front, is the best-kept structure on the town square. Just steps away is the Macon County Courthouse. From Gray's window, he can see a turn-of-the-century monument to the Confederate soldiers of Macon County, a statue of a rebel with a rifle.

"The typical Confederate monument that you'll find in traditional Southern cities," Gray says.

At the White House today, five of the eight Tuskegee survivors will listen to the president, to Vice President Gore and to Dr. David Satcher, head of the Centers for Disease Control, apologize for the Tuskegee experiment. Herman Shaw, 94, one of the surviving participants will speak. The ceremony will be broadcast back to Tuskegee for the three survivors whose fragile health kept them home.

In Washington, Fred Gray will help the five participants in the East Room into a receiving line to shake the president's hand.

Willie Butler, the Church of Christ minister, says Gray probably won't attract much attention.

"I don't take anything away from Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, any of those people," Butler says. "I don't. But had it not been for Fred Gray, those people would still be obscure."

Pub Date: 5/15/97

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