Tuesday, July 21st, 2020
CIVIL RIGHTS ATTORNEY FRED GRAY
REMEMBERS CONGRESSMAN JOHN LEWIS
The nation has lost a Super-Giant and Super Icon in the Civil Rights Movement with the passing of Congressman John R. Lewis of Georgia, who was born and reared in Pike County, Alabama. I met John Lewis when he was a teenager living with his parents. He had read about the Montgomery Bus Boycott which was led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1955-56.
In 1958, he wanted to attend Troy State College in Troy, Alabama, when only white persons attended that college. At that time all the public educational institutions in Alabama were segregated. He wrote to Dr. King asking him to help.
Dr. King sent John a round-trip Greyhound Bus ticket from Troy, Alabama to Montgomery. Dr. King contacted me, advised me of his desires and asked me to meet John Lewis at the bus station in Montgomery and bring him to a meeting at Rev. Abernathy’s First Baptist Church in Montgomery. I did.
After introducing John to Dr. King and Rev. Abernathy, we discussed John’s desires. The conclusion was reached that Dr. King would recommend to the Montgomery Improvement Association in assisting him. Since John was a minor his parents would have to file the suit on his behalf. The meeting ended with John returning home to discuss the matter with his parents. Unfortunately, he was told by his parents that it would put too much pressure on them if he attempted to integrate Troy State College. John never filed such a suit.
The fire inside John to do something about segregation continued to burn. He enrolled in the American Baptist Theological Seminary and Fisk University in Nashville, TN. Years later, in 1961, he led a delegation of young people, Freedom Riders, from the Nashville area to complete a journey that began in Washington, DC, testing transportation on buses and in bus stations. They arrived in Montgomery only to be beaten – at the same bus station where I met him three years earlier. I filed a suit, John Lewis, et al v. Greyhound Corporation, on behalf of those young people. It resulted in desegregating the buses and facilities throughout the country.
John Lewis was instrumental in organizing, and was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington, from which came delivery of Dr. King’s notable “I Have A Dream” speech. He continued to be involved in civil rights activities across the nation, and was one of the leaders in the Selma-to-Montgomery March in 1965.
When he and the marchers were beaten back on Bloody Sunday they called and retained me to file the lawsuit the next day, Hosea Williams, John Lewis, Amelia Boynton v. Governor George C. Wallace. It resulted in accomplishment of the Selma-to-Montgomery March, and ultimately the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
He was truly one of the great leaders of what became known as the modern Civil Rights Movement. My last personal appearance with him in public was at the Library of Congress on December 4, 2019, when the Library unveiled the papers and documents belonging to my client Rosa Parks. The two of us were participants in that unveiling ceremony.
John Lewis devoted all his adult life to obtaining equal rights and equal justice for all American citizens. It had a rippling effect across the nation and around the world.
My last conversation with him was on July 8, 2020. He called and we had a good, long discussion as his strength permitted. We recalled our first meeting, the detailed work he had done during his adult life and the work I did as the first civil rights lawyer he met. Ending that conversation I asked him if he had anything, any matters he wanted me to continue to do. He told me, “Brother, Keep going. Keep pushing. Set the record straight.” I promised him I would do that.
We closed the conversation with a prayer in which I prayed for him and for us that we may continue the work he had done for so long and to “Keep pushing. Keep going. Set the record straight.” That is John Lewis’ message to us.
Best wishes are extended to his family. May the Lord continue to help us until all God’s children in this country are truly free and there is equal justice for all.
-Fred D. Gray
Civil Rights Attorney for
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Mrs. Rosa Parks
Congressman John Lewis & Others