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Perspectives | Reflections

His work is far from over: Lawyer spreads message of racial reconciliation

By Sally Macdonald
Seattle Times religion writer

When Rosa Parks needed a lawyer to tell an Alabama judge why she should be able to sit wherever she wanted on a city bus, Fred Gray was there.

He was there, too, when Parks' friends, meeting in someone's living room later that evening, chose the new preacher in town, Martin Luther King Jr., to lead them to the next level of freedom.

And later, when African-American schoolchildren needed lawyers and soldiers to help them attend school with white children, Gray was there.

Over the past four decades, Gray, an attorney with deep roots in Montgomery, Ala., was there, usually behind the scenes, arguing for racial justice in dozens of famous and crucial civil-rights cases, claiming for African Americans the right to sit in the same bus seats, eat at the same lunch counters, study in the same classrooms, live in the same neighborhoods, work in the same jobs and enjoy the same legal protections as whites.

The work of Gray and others in the movement is far from over, says Milton Jones, senior minister of Shoreline's Northwest Church of Christ.

Jones has invited Gray to Seattle next Sunday, Nov. 17, to preach as part of a series of sermons he's titled "Racial Reconciliation," aimed at getting blacks and whites into the same churches to worship together. The church also will sponsor speaking appearances by Gray at the University of Washington on Friday and at Sharples Alternative High School next Saturday.

"Wasn't it Martin Luther King who said 11 a.m. Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America?" Jones asks. "All these years and nothing's changed. The churches are still as segregated as they ever were."

Civil rights is more than a political issue, Jones says. "It's a religious and spiritual issue. Government should be involved in civil rights, but the church should be involved, too."

The Bible deals with reconciliation many times, Jones says. Stories about relationships between Jews and Samaritans reflect centuries of prejudice and racial and religious hatred on the part of both groups.

Christians rarely hear such blunt interpretations from the pulpit, Jones says, and that's too bad.

"Jesus pitched a tent among us," Jones says. "That's a story of reconciliation. That's the way we have to reconcile with each other. We have to pitch our tents with each other, to intentionally enter each other's world to do good. If we just wait for it to happen, it won't."

Gray, now 65, didn't wait for racial reconciliation to happen in Alabama.

He recounts in his book "Bus Ride to Justice" (Black Belt Press, 1995; $25), how, as a young man denied admission to the University of Alabama's then-segregated law school, he vowed to "destroy everything segregated that I could find."

The vow became a drumbeat in the background of his life, providing cadence as he marched first against the daily indignities — like having to move to the back of the bus even if all the empty seats were at the front — and then against the deeply entrenched race-based oppression that permeated Alabama's legal system.

Gray was first a friend of Parks and then her attorney. He had had lunch with her earlier that afternoon in 1955 when she climbed wearily aboard the bus, sat down and then refused to give up her seat to a white man when the driver ordered her to.

The night of Parks' arrest, Gray says, he met with friends to discuss a strategy for boycotting the buses. They'd been looking for a spark to help them ignite their movement and Parks' arrest was it. Through the boycott, they hoped to send an unmistakable message to the white community: We're fed up with prejudice, injustice and segregated public transit.

At that meeting, someone mentioned the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. might lead the boycott.

King, Gray remembers, "was fresh, a newcomer, young, articulate, knowledgeable, highly educated, and had not identified himself with any community activities other than his church."

Gray became King's first civil-rights attorney. The boycott they started that night lasted 381 days and spawned a 40-year movement that has taken on racial discrimination wherever it appeared — in the courts, restaurants, schools and universities, neighborhoods, professional associations, parks and jails.

"I had many disagreements with my clients, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, in my efforts to keep them on a sound legal track," Gray remembers in his autobiography. "There were times when they would consult other attorneys because they did not agree with my advice. It seems as if each time they failed to heed my advice, either one of the two or some other person very important in the movement would be arrested or end up in jail."

Abernathy, who was King's right-hand man, once joked to Gray, "Fred, you keep me out of jail and I will keep you out of hell," and Gray remembers telling his wife, "My job certainly is a lot tougher than his."

Gray probably didn't need Abernathy's help to stay out of hell.

Gray's mother had sent him to Nashville Christian Institute with high hopes that he'd become a minister, and by the time he was 12, he was one of the school's "boy preachers," traveling throughout the South trying to raise money for the school and recruit students. He lived on campus and before he'd graduated from high school, he was a part-time minister for several congregations.

In 1974, Gray's church in Tuskegee, Ala., merged with an all-white church, becoming one of the first integrated congregations in the Church of Christ. Gray still is an elder there.

"Not only was I able to destroy segregation in government, education and transportation," he wrote, "but also in the church. My ministerial work has been a complement to my legal work and the legal work has supplemented my ministerial work. They have worked hand-in-hand."

It is that latter experience Jones hopes Gray will bring to his congregation as they contemplate "racial reconciliation."

"You know, we're very tolerant; Seattle is a very tolerant city," Jones says. "But that doesn't mean we're reconciled. We hold hands and talk to one another, but that doesn't mean we're friends, one with each other. That's what we hope to accomplish here. We want to pitch our tents together and enter each other's worlds and be reconciled."

Note: This story originally ran in The Seattle Times Nov. 9, 1996.

Copyright © 1996 The Seattle Times Company

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