The Back of the Bus takes a Front Seat.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Fred Gray (c. 1956)

There was a wealth of information in the latest episode of Hidden Legal Figures. We uncovered new tidbits about the legal efforts associated with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Here’s what we brought into plain view:

1. Fred David Gray was only 25 years old when he took on the role of leading the legal efforts to challenge Alabama’s segregated seating laws.

2. Becoming a lawyer was his “secret desire.” He originally planned to be a preacher. In fact, he is a licensed minister today.

I was not only going to be a preacher but I was going to be a lawyer. While I didn’t know any lawyers, I understood that lawyers rendered service and they could help solve the problem that everything was segregated at the time. Fred Gray.

3. His first case involved defending Claudette Colvin, a 15 year old who was arrested in March 1955 for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger – a full 10 months before Rosa Parks was arrested for the same offense.

4. The Women’s Political Council, headed by JoAnn Robinson, had been monitoring the bus situation for several years. The council had long-standing plans to hold a one-day boycott when the time came. When Rosa Parks was arrested December 1, 1955, the council put its plans into motion.

5. Gray and Robinson worked together to expand the boycott and make it a more coordinated and extensive effort.

Exactly what we had planned in JoAnn Robinson’s living room took place. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. was selected to be the spokesman and the young lawyer just out of law school was selected as the lawyer for the movement to be in charge of the legal activities. That how I became involved in it and that’s how the Montgomery Bus Boycott got started. Fred Gray.

6. The case that Gray handled to challenge the segregation laws was called Browder v. Gayle. It was filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama on February 1, 1956. The plaintiffs in the case were Aurelia Browder, Suzy’s McDonald, Claudette Colvin, and Mary Louise Smith.

A three judge panel found the laws unconstitutional on June 1, 1956, finding that they violated the equal protection guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment.

We cannot in good conscience perform our duty as judges by blindly following the precedent of Plessy v. Ferguson, when our study leaves us in complete agreement…that the separate but equal doctrine can no longer be safely followed as a correct statement of the law. We hold that the statutes and ordinances requiring segregation of the white and colored races on the motor buses if a common carrier of passengers in the City of Montgomery and it’s police jurisdiction violates the due process and equal protection of the law clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Browder v Gayle, 142 F. Supp. 707, 717 (1956).

7. Gray went on to represent those involved in the sit-ins and victims of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.

8. Fred Gray still lives and practices law in Montgomery.


View posts by derrickalexanderpope
President and Managing Director of The Arc of Justice Institute and host of the Hidden Legal Figures podcast.

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