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Alabama Attorney Fred Gray Will Receive Presidential Award of Freedom From Biden

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Fred Gray, 91, still practices law in his Tuskegee offices, as well as in his hometown of Montgomery. (Alabama State University)

By Chuck Chandler
Alabama NewsCenter Staff

President Joe Biden on July 7 will award Alabama’s Fred Gray Sr. the Presidential Award of Freedom, which is the nation’s highest civilian honor, the White House announced Friday.

The 91-year-old attorney still practices law in his Tuskegee offices, as well as in his hometown of Montgomery, where the street he grew up on was renamed last year from Jefferson Davis Avenue to Fred D. Gray Avenue.

Gray, who represented the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., as told in the new book “Alabama v. King,” is one of the most respected figures in the modern movement toward equality for Blacks. Gray also represented Rosa Parks, and his courtroom victories led to many of the most important gains in reducing the vast disparity in rights that was a reality in America when he opened his first law office in Montgomery in 1954.

Biden is presenting the Presidential Award of Freedom to 17 living and deceased Americans “who have made exemplary contributions to the prosperity, values or security of the United States, world peace or other significant societal, public or private endeavors,” the White House said in a press release.

“These seventeen Americans demonstrate the power of possibilities and embody the soul of the nation – hard work, perseverance and faith,” Biden said in the release. “They have overcome significant obstacles to achieve impressive accomplishments in the arts and sciences, dedicated their lives to advocating for the most vulnerable among us, and acted with bravery to drive change in their communities – and across the world – while blazing trails for generations to come.”

Gray thanked Biden for the honor and for the nomination by U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, as well as for the many others who sought the award for Gray, including the Alabama Bar Association, the National Bar Association and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“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 on Sewell’s congressional website. “It speaks volumes to civil rights workers who have devoted their talents and resources toward improving the quality of life of Americans in this country; and it speaks directly to African Americans in general. 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. 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.”

King called Gray “the chief counsel for the protest movement.” Gray represented Parks in the case that in 1956 led to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that abolished segregation on public buses. Gray convinced an all-white jury to acquit King on trumped-up tax evasion charges in 1960.

Gray won cases that affirmed the one person, one vote principle; ensured protection for marchers from Selma to Montgomery; integrated the University of Alabama, Auburn University and all Alabama public educational institutions; brought equal rights and protections to college students; ended systematic exclusion of Blacks from juries; integrated public parks; and allowed the NAACP to operate in the state.

“I among others have fought hard to ensure that Attorney Gray receives rightful recognition for his groundbreaking contributions to the civil rights movement, and I am overjoyed that President Biden will be giving him his flowers as he lives,” said Sewell, who wasn’t born when Gray won in the courtroom for Parks and King. “Congratulations, Attorney Gray and may your legacy of service and sacrifice continue to be a part of our nation’s story for generations to come!”

Biden will also honor Olympic gold medal gymnast Simone BilesSister Simone Campbell of the Sisters of Social Service; former University of Texas at Brownsville president Julieta Garcia; former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords; Apple co-founder Steve Jobs (posthumous); Father Alexander Karloutsos of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America; Constitution Literacy and National Unity Center founder Khizr Khan; New York critical care nurse Sandra Lindsay; former U.S. Sen. John McCain (posthumous); Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee founder Diane Nash; Olympic gold medal soccer player Megan Rapinoe; former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson; former AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka (posthumous); retired Army Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught; Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington; and Raul Yzaguirre, former president of the National Council of La Raza.