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Byron Williams: Civil rights icon fought so we could vote

Byron Williams: Civil rights icon fought so we could vote

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Famed civil rights attorney Fred Gray, 90, represented Rosa Parks in 1955.

I recently had the pleasure of listening to famed civil rights attorney Fred Gray explain how the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott was formed.

Gray recalled a meeting at the home of Jo Ann Robinson, an educator and activist in Montgomery, Ala., on the evening of Dec. 8, 1955.

One week earlier, Rosa Parks had been arrested for having violated the city’s segregation bus laws. In addition to Gray, who represented Parks, local NAACP leader Edgar Daniel (E.D.) Nixon was among the attendees.

The initial plan was for a one-day boycott of the Montgomery buses that was held on Dec. 5. But the success of the one-day boycott prompted the group to think beyond their initial 24-hour prohibition. They formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA).

Gray shrewdly suggested Nixon serve as the committee’s treasurer because of his leadership within the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union.

Moreover, Nixon’s relationship with union leader A. Phillip Randolph, who would become the originator of the 1963 March on Washington, not only allowed the organization to raise money nationwide, but also gave the effort national recognition.

The association also needed a leader, a spokesperson. Robinson stated, “My pastor just arrived in Montgomery, but he can move people.” She was referring to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., recently installed as the new pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. With the benefit of hindsight, Robinson’s suggestion was arguably one of the most profound and equally understated comments of the last half of 20th century America.

Gray became Parks’ attorney, in part because of his experience representing Claudette Colvin. Nine months before Parks’ arrest, Colvin at 15 was arrested for her refusal to give up her seat to a white person on the Montgomery bus. Because of Colvin’s age and pregnancy, some historians hold that she did not possess the public image to represent the test case that challenged segregation. Thus, she is a footnote in history.

This was one of the myriad stories Gray shared in his 60-minute session at the recently held Alabama State Bar Convention. At 90, his booming voice and accurate historical recall belied his nonagenarian status.

From Montgomery to Selma and beyond, Gray was an integral player in many of the civil rights movement’s seminal events, even trying a case before the Supreme Court. Imagine Forrest Gump with intellectual heft.

Hollywood producers would find it difficult to accept Gray’s story as viable. It would not be believable. With very few resources after graduating from Alabama State College, Gray attended law school at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. According to Gray, a portion of his tuition was subsidized by the state of Alabama, which provided monetary support for Black students in lieu of them attending any school within the state.

In Gray’s case, he was being groomed at taxpayers’ expense to return to his home state to strike down the system responsible, in part, for his law school education.

In 1963, Gray successfully represented Vivian Malone and James Hood, who had originally been denied admission to the University of Alabama, the incident where Alabama Gov. George Wallace infamously declared his commitment to physically block the “schoolhouse door” to prohibit integration.

Gray also played a critical role in Selma, Ala., in the struggle for voting rights. Behind the scenes, Gray used his legal acumen to secure the protesters’ constitutional right to march from Selma to Montgomery.

It is with appreciation of this history, and the efforts of people like Gray, that I remain uncomfortable with current attempts to make voting more difficult. Without any evidence of voter irregularities, proponents say the provisions are necessary to shore up public confidence in the integrity of elections after the 2020 presidential contest. Such efforts have been bolstered by unsubstantiated claims of election fraud.

Unfortunately, one of the causes Gray has spent more than 60 years advocating is the historical aberration. With the exception of a 48-year window (1965-2013), a portion of the American narrative has always included those who wanted voting to be more difficult for some.

Voting is the most fundamental responsibility of every citizen. The nation has never been made better by attempts to make the process more difficult. No single issue has been addressed more in the Constitution than expanding the right to vote, as the 15th, 19th and 26th amendments attest.

No matter how one seeks to justify these measures, they are rooted in mendacious tropes. Those who support legislation that tightens voter participation can see only through the reactionary lens of immediate gratification, unaware of the impact placed on the nation’s civic virtue, along with the patriotic contributions of individuals like Fred Gray.

The Rev. Byron Williams (, a writer and the host of “The Public Morality” on WSNC 90.5, lives in Winston-Salem.


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