Civil Rights Icon Fred Gray Sr. Receives Nation’s Highest Civilian Honor

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By Hazel Scott/ASU

One of the most consequential attorneys for the Civil Rights Movement,  ASU alumnus and famed civil rights attorney Fred Gray Sr.,   was recognized Thursday, July 7, for keeping a promise to himself – to destroy through the legal system “everything that was segregated.”

In a White House ceremony, President Joe Biden presented Gray with The Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, for spending his life achieving his goal of advocating for human rights.

The honor is reserved for people 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.

Gray, still an active attorney at 91, was one of the first African American members of the Alabama Legislature after Reconstruction. He has been the legal mastermind behind many of the nation’s pivotal civil rights cases, particularly during the birth of the modern civil rights movement in 1955 when he defended Rosa Parks and Dr.  Martin Luther King, Jr. Gray’s prominence grew throughout his decades-long career as he successfully defended a succession of history-making cases such as his representation of the plaintiffs in the “Tuskegee Syphilis Study,” which involved doctors leaving black men untreated for the disease for decades.  

Gray was one of 17 honorees, including gymnast Simone Biles and the late Arizona Republican John McCain, who received medals on Thursday in the East Room of the White House.

Gray, who wore a conservative dark blue suit spiced with bright red socks for the ceremony,  stood tall and proud as President Biden, a medal recipient himself, clasped the ribbon holding the medal around his neck.

“When Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin, John Lewis and other giants of our history needed a lawyer for their fight for freedom, you know who they called? They called a guy by the name of Fred Gray. One of the most important civil rights lawyers in our history, Fred’s legal brilliance and strategy desegregated schools and secured the right to vote…An ordained minister, he viewed a righteous calling that touched the soul of our nation. At 91 years young, he is still practicing law and  still keeping the faith in the best of America.”

President Biden also acknowledged Gray’s bravery in risking his safety during the Civil Rights Movement.