Rosa Parks’ Attorney Discussed His Role in ASU’s ‘60s Student Sit-In Movement

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Gray speaking at the Sit-in conference

By Hazel Scott/ASU

A central figure in the civil rights movement kicked off Alabama State University’s three-day conference (Feb. 24-26) commemorating the famous ASU Student  Sit-in of 1960.

On Monday, Feb. 24, famed civil rights lawyer Fred Gray, who represented Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,  discussed his pivotal role in Alabama’s first sit-in protest by students at Alabama State College (now Alabama State University), and how that sit-in played a big part in the civil rights movement then and now.   

“Almost 60 years ago, we assembled here to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the sit-in demonstration that gave rise to the case of St. John Dixon v. Alabama State Board of Education,” Gray said. “So, I’m talking to you today not as a participant but as their lawyer. We have made a tremendous amount of progress but the struggle for equal justice continues. ”

Gray (ASU class of 1951) recalled that  immediately after the sit-in at the segregated lunch counter at the Montgomery County Courthouse, then-Montgomery Mayor Earl James said it was regrettable that the ASU students took part in a sit-in protest that “could not possibly accomplish any good for their race.”

Gray said that he and the students were determined to prove him wrong. The expulsion of six sit-in students and subsequent federal lawsuit filed by Gray, Dixon v. Alabama, became a landmark case that established due process for university students facing discipline.

“This was a very important case. It was my brain child and I had enough since to know, as a young lawyer just out of law school, that I needed all the help I could get. I contacted attorney Thurgood Marshall. Marshall and his chief assistant and the NAACP assisted me. That relationship formed in 1955 until today.”

Gray remarked that Dixon v. Alabama State Board of Education has been called the leading case on due process in the country for students in public higher education.

Why the Courthouse?

Gray noted that the sit-in at the Montgomery County Courthouse was not an accident, neither was it an accident that the Montgomery Bus Boycott stated on the day it started.

“In both of those instances there were individuals who played a major role in making the plans that ended up resulting in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the student sit-in demonstration,” Gray said.  “I was involved to some extent in both of those instances. I was involved in some of the planning, not the details of it. The final analysis, it was planned.”

Gray said the sit-in students could have picked any 10 cent store downtown, but the courthouse was selected for a reason.

“We knew the experience we had with the Montgomery Police Department and we knew they wouldn’t be sympathetic,” Gray said.  “My concern and responsibilities as a lawyer was to keep them out of jail. So we picked the Montgomery County Courthouse because it was under the supervision of Sheriff Mac Sim Butler, who was the white sheriff for Montgomery County.”

Gray explained that Butler had been very considerate and did not punish   African Americans as the police department had done.

“When Sheriff Butler arrived at the courthouse where the sit-in students were, he told the person in charge to let them stay as long as they liked. When they left, they closed the cafeteria.”

Sit-In Benefits

Gray said the lunch counter sit-in movement on Feb. 25, 1960 occurred almost during the same time as the freedom rides and freedom walks. He said because of the sit-in several important things happened in helping African Americans.

He clarified that buses were integrated in Montgomery, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 had become effective providing among other things, the creation of the Civil Rights Commission, which filed lawsuits for African Americans and others to obtain the right to vote.

That sit-in also gave rise to students and faculty members not being able to be expelled; private sectors providing procedural due process in employment;  organizations were created, such as the National Association of Colleges and Universities, to focus on how the  Dixon v. Alabama Board of Education  decision could be implemented; and it sparked the creation of an insurance company, The United Educators, to help some institutions who were having a hard time getting insurance, just to name a few of the that were established.

“All these things happened because of what the ASU sit-in students did,” Gray said.

Challenge

Gray gave members of the audience several challenges. He asked them to acknowledge that racism and inequality are problems, to come up with a plan to eradicate the problems and execute the plan.

“We must not rely on others to do something about the problems,” Gray said. “We must take responsibility.”

He had a particular challenge for the African Americans in the audience.

“Use your education and give back to help your brothers and sisters who are still in poverty  and who are not receiving a quality education;  help our youth understand that their lives are worth living and help them stop killing each other; and register to vote and then vote. We need to help solve these problems among our people.”

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Fred Gray (right) with Martin Luther King Jr.

Changemaker

The Montgomery native, who helped changed history, played a crucial role in some of the biggest court decisions that have had a major impact, not just in Alabama, but the entire country.

He defended Rosa Park and Claudette Colvin after they were arrested for not giving up their seats to a white person on the Montgomery Bus System.   He filed the petition that challenged the constitutionality of Alabama state laws mandating segregation on buses (Browder v. Gayle).  His leadership and legal counsel played a crucial role in the successful desegregation of Montgomery buses. Gray also gave legal counsel to Martin Luther King Jr. and King’s Montgomery Improvement Association.

Other important cases included Gray fighting for African-American rights to education, the freedom to march peacefully, and the right to participate in juries. He also represented the victims in the Tuskegee syphilis study that purposely left affected black men untreated.

“It was on this campus that I was encouraged by professors J.D. Pierce, Thelma Glass and Jo Ann Robinson to become an attorney. I decided I would be a lawyer in Alabama and destroy everything segregated that I could find,” he said. “The struggle for equal justice continues.”

The event was sponsored by the ASU Department of History and Political Science and the ASU College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences.