Working together: Civil rights attorney tells audience ‘each one of us can do something’
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Working together: Civil rights attorney tells audience ‘each one of us can do something’

Civil rights attorney and minister Fred Gray, whose clients included Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, discussed his role as a pioneer in the civil rights movement and challenged his Belmont audience to keep the unfinished battle going.

Gray stressed the importance of individuals working together to solve the nation’s problems. “It’s going to take all of us working together,” he said. “Each one of us can do something.”

Well known for serving as the attorney for King and Parks, and also for the victims of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, Gray spoke as a part of “Diagnosing Our Future,” a speaker series organized by the Gordon E. Inman College of Health Sciences & Nursing at Belmont.

Gray’s appearance included a panel discussion followed by a keynote address and a question-and-answer session. During most of the event, Gray was accompanied on the stage by Dr. Henry Foster, Jr., professor emeritus and former dean of the Meharry School of Medicine, Dwight Lewis, member of The Tennessean editorial board and John Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center and founding editorial director of USA Today.

When discussing the Tuskegee syphilis study, Gray stressed the connection between what transpired decades ago and what still occurs today. The 40-year Tuskegee study began in 1932 when the U.S. Public Health Service identified nearly 400 African-American men with untreated syphilis and followed them – without treating them – until 1972 even though doctors knew by 1947 that syphilis could be cured with penicillin. Of modern doctors and scientists, Gray said, “Sometimes they forget that the persons they’re dealing with have certain rights.”

When asked about his own involvement in the civil rights movement, Seigenthaler, who served as an assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy from 1960-62, said it is important to first acknowledge Gray’s role. “Fred Gray was there a long time before I was there,” he said. Seigenthaler later acknowledged the danger Gray had to face as a civil rights attorney. “As the lawyer for the movement, he walked every day in the shadow of death.”

Gray spoke at length about the extensive planning that went into organizing the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott. He specifically discussed his meetings with Rosa Parks leading up to her refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, an action that incited the boycott. “She knew what to do because we had talked about it,” he said. Gray explained that he was a good friend of Parks, and they met to talk on a regular basis. “We talked about everything from segregation to youth,” he said.

Gray also gave advice to the audience. He urged people to identify problems in their own communities and to work toward solving them. He did this in his own life, he explained. Once he observed the blatant racial segregation as an undergraduate student at Alabama State University, he resolved that he would become a lawyer and “come back to Alabama and destroy everything segregated I could find.”

Gray also discussed the importance of the Christian church in the civil rights movement, as well as its continuing influence. He pointed out that, historically, the church was one of the only places African Americans could meet to express themselves openly, which was instrumental to the evolution of the civil rights movement. Recognizing that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a reverend, Gray said, “The role of the church and the role of the clergy is very important.”

The panel discussion and keynote address were followed by a question and answer session. One person asked how people could take the fight for equality to the next level, while another asked about the commitment one has to return to his or her home community after receiving an education. One man brought mixed reactions from the audience when he pointed out that the panelists were all men, and that gender inequality is a major problem today.

Others took the time to express their gratitude. One young woman began to cry as she told the men on stage, “I have had so many beautiful experiences, and I know it’s because of you.”

Gray has written two books, “Bus Ride to Justice” and “The Tuskegee Syphilis Study: The Real Story and Beyond.”

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