An update from Kim, a Master of Liberal Studies student:
When 81-year-old Fred Gray came striding into the little museum in Tuskegee on Wednesday, to look at him was to imagine that time really does stand still.
More than 50 years ago, he was the attorney for the civil rights movement. He carried the legal fight for Rosa Parks, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Martin Luther King, and the march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery in 1965.
But there’s nothing “still” about Gray. His whole life has been about massive societal change, and on the day he met the SMU civil rights pilgrims, he was rushing between appointments surrounding the massive criminal case he is currently working. He perched on a high stool, peered over his glasses at the group, and told a story most people don’t know:
“My first civil rights case was not Mrs. Parks,” Gray said. “My first case was for a 15-year-old girl named Claudette Colvin – before Mrs. Parks.”
He explained that in March 1955, about nine months before Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated city bus to a white passenger, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott and launching a movement, the teenager had also refused to give up her seat. Unlike Parks’ quiet refusal and decision to face arrest, Colvin had to be carried from the bus – fighting.
Colvin was convicted of delinquent behavior – Gray couldn’t prevent that. And the time was not yet right to push for more. But young Colvin’s experience was still fresh when Parks defied the system, and local leaders called for the boycott.
“We wanted to make sure that what had happened to Claudette wouldn’t happen to anyone else. When Rosa was arrested, we were determined to solve the problem of the buses from then on.”
Turning to look into the faces of the young students in the SMU group, he brought home the message:
“There’s no question in my mind that Claudette Colvin gave Rosa Parks the moral courage to do what she did,” Gray said. Had the 15-year-old girl not refused to move, not knowing what kind of retaliation she would face as a result of that refusal, would Parks have made her stand, he asked? And if Parks had never been arrested, and Martin Luther King not been chosen to lead the bus boycott, what would the next chapter have looked like?
“The whole history of the civil rights movement might have been different,” Gray said.
Gray answered a few questions, and made a few gentle jokes about his age and the unexpectedness of continuing a vital legal career at 81. But he had a challenge for SMU’s young travelers:
“Just remember that problems may never be solved if you don’t solve them.” He had worked hard to be prepared when the bus boycott happened, he said, but had a big moment of doubt when it did.
“I got scared.” So Gray called the people with the most experience in these matters – Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP lawyers who had successfully argued the Brown v. Board of Education case. They stepped up.
“There are people out there who will help you,” Gray said. “But you have to start it.”