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Civil Rights Icon Fred Gray Awarded American Bar Association’s Highest Honor

During the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr. looked to attorney Fred Gray as his “chief counsel.”
By Cody Short | cshort@al.com

Civil Rights icon and Montgomery native Fred Gray is set to receive the 2023 ABA Medal, the highest honor from the American Bar Association. The award is given to a member of the bench who has “rendered conspicuous service in the cause of American jurisprudence.”

He will receive the Medal at the ABA General Assembly on Aug. 5 during the 2023 ABA Annual Meeting in Denver.

During the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr. looked to Gray as his “chief counsel.” He was also a key legal strategist for several moments during the struggle for equal rights such as representing Rosa Parks, leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and representing marchers during the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights marches of 1965.

Additionally, he was the lead counsel for the victims of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which led to settlement payments and an apology from President Bill Clinton, on behalf of the government, in 1997.

Gray said, “I am honored, appreciative and humbled that the ABA Board of Governors has selected me as the 2023 recipient of the ABA Medal. It is a great honor to be recognized by my peers. I am appreciative because it comes late in life, at the age of 92, while I still can enjoy it. I am humbled to be added to this list of great legal minds and leaders.”

Gray’s legal work led to integration at both the University of Alabama and Auburn University. In 1967, he won a court order that integrated all Alabama educational institutions that were not already under court orders. At the time, Gray’s motto was “to destroy everything segregated I could find.”

In 2022, President Joe Biden awarded Gray the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Biden called Gray, “one of the most important civil rights lawyers in our history.”

Gray previously served in the Alabama House of Representatives in 1970, becoming one of the first two Black Alabama State Legislatures since Reconstruction, along with Thomas Reed. He also was president of the National Bar Association in 1985 and the first Black president of the Alabama Bar Association in 2002.

“Fred Gray is a giant in the American legal profession,” ABA President Deborah Enix-Ross said. “As a pioneering lawyer and as a courageous civil rights leader, he is a role model for many. Fred Gray, a longtime ABA member, embodies everything that our members aspire to be.”

Gray still practices law with the firm Gray, Langford, Sapp, McGowan, Gray, Gray & Nathanson in Tuskegee and Montgomery.

Other recipients of the ABA Medal include: Chief Justices Warren E. Burger and Charles Evans Hughes, and Associate Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., Sandra Day O’Connor, Thurgood Marshall, William J. Brennan, Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Tom Clark and Felix Frankfurter.

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