ACU presents American icon Fred Gray with honorary degree


For Immediate Release
Dec. 16, 1999

Dr. Fred Gray, Martin Luther King's first attorney and a civil rights specialist, accepted an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Abilene Christian University Dec. 10 in honor of all forgotten civil rights lawyers and the unsung heroes whose faces will never be known.

"Many of you have heard of Rosa Parks, and she is definitely a hero," Gray said during his address at December commencement. "But how many of you have heard of Claudette Colvin. She was a 15-year-old African-American girl arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man - nine months before Rosa Parks. She gave moral courage to all of us, including Rosa Parks, who on Nov. 28 received the Congressional Medal of Honor."

Don Crisp of Dallas, chairman of ACU's Board of Trustees, hooded Gray, and ACU president Dr. Royce Money presented the award.

"You are as much an American icon as the people you represented," Money said to Gray, who was the lawyer for Rosa Parks and the first attorney for Dr. Martin Luther King.

"I am honored, humbled and elated by the honor you have bestowed upon me tonight," Gray said. "It is a long way from Montgomery Park, Ala., to Abilene, Texas, the key city in the Big Country with friendly people."

Gray explained this was his third trip to Abilene. He was invited by the City of Abilene to speak Jan. 19, 1992, during Abilene's first Martin Luther King birthday celebration. At that time, he challenged the city to make MLK's birthday a holiday. He said he was happy to see the city now celebrated King's birthday as a holiday.

His second invitation was from Money, who invited Gray and about 30 other church leaders to attend a "One in Christ" conference in late October.

"At that time, I expressed my concern that this university should seriously consider diversifying this campus at all levels -- students, faculty, staff and members of the Board," Gray said. "I'm happy to know ACU is committed to increase diversity - not because they are compelled to do so, but because it's the right thing to do. It's what Jesus would do."

Gray said diversity and race relations are important today in America. He recalled more than 30 years ago, then Alabama Governor George Wallace stated, "Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."

Gov. Don Siegelman, elected Alabama's governor in 1998, has had dramatic success is making the state government look more like its citizenry. Alabama moved from 37th to 13th in how their leaders mirror their population, Gray said.

"A government that looks like the state it governs boosts the confidence of the citizenry," he said.

Several times, Gray made the point that one person can make a real difference. He also praised the power of the law to change society.

"I have succeeded in breaking down the walls of racial barriers in transportation, voter registration, healthcare and in other areas of life," he said. "Demonstrations were important for getting mass participation and the public's attention. But lawsuits created and interpreted the law and gave people their rights. Unfortunately, historians have written lawyers out of the civil rights movement."

Therefore, Gray said, he was accepting the degree for all civic rights lawyers who have been forgotten and the unsung heroes whose faces will never be known.

He told the graduates they had inherited a legacy from their parents, their churches and the Christian university from which they were earning their degrees - a legacy of a country were freedom reigns ... and a society where the majority of the people look like much of Gray's audience.

"According to the U.S. census, by 2035 the white majority will be in the minority," Gray said. "You need to prepare to live in a society where you are no longer a majority."

Gray reminded the students they were the last ACU graduates of this century, adding that they needed to learn to live and work in the new millennium.

Here were his suggestions:

  • Put God first.
  • Know that prejudice is wrong and needs to be corrected.
  • Commit yourself to destroying prejudices wherever you meet them.
  • Seek to serve rather than being served.

"We live life in a highly materialistic society," he said. "If all you want is money, it's not worth it. Live life to make a difference. When I decided to become a lawyer, I didn't know what lawyers earned; I just saw how bad it was in Montgomery."

Gray told them to "find their calling - one in which you can render service to others and to the Lord."

One way to improve race relations, he said, is for everyone to look around them.

"If everyone around you looks just like you racially, that should place you notice that something's wrong," he said. "Once you find that it exists, determine to do something about it."

He challenged each person to select a person of a different race and make the person a best friend. And if the first person chosen doesn't work out, he said, "Don'' give up. Try it again!"

"It's a simple step in the right direction," Gray said. "We have racial problems today because we don't know each other."

And he closed with one final note of advice for the graduates: "Find your niche. Use your degree to make a difference in your life and in the lives of the people with whom you come in contact."

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Last update: Dec. 16, 1999
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