"We don't have any such thing as a race-neutral society. We don't have a color-blind society," said Fred Gray, an Alabama lawyer who represented such civil rights heroes as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. "It's good to come up with these terms, but when you really want to know the result, let's look at it. You can talk about quotas or a lack of them. But if the same people are doing the same thing in the same way they've been doing it all the time � and if they still look the same as they did to begin with, and they're still looking that way � something is wrong with that type of diversity."
Gray spoke to a crowd made up largely of law students at The University of South Dakota's fifth annual Thurgood Marshall Symposium held at the USD School of Law. He will deliver the 2006 Martin Luther King, Jr. campus address at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 16 in Slagle Hall Auditorium. It is free and open to the public.
During the Wednesday symposium, Gray hoped to inspire future generations of law students to seek out the problems that exist in their society and find ways to address them.
"I am really troubled by what is happening across this nation," he said. "We need to learn that all of us, regardless of our ethnic background, can make substantial contributions.
"There is something wrong with a system that has all of this disparity in it," Gray added. "You ought to be moved to the extent that you want to see it changed."
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He said he didn't have answers for young lawyers looking for a way to legally address the disparities, but he offered himself up as an example to follow.
"If a black boy in Montgomery, AL, in the '50s can see (segregation) and be willing to take a step � and, with a whole lot of help from a whole lot of people all along the way, has been able to make a difference � you can do the same," Gray said.
The youngest of five children, Gray said his mother wanted him to become a preacher, so she sent him off to a religious school at age 12. Although he did eventually become a minister, he also decided to become a lawyer. He went on to attend Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH, because he couldn't attend law school in his segregated home state.
"I made a secret commitment � glad I kept it to myself � as to what I was going to do," Gray said.
He vowed to leave Alabama, go to law school, become a lawyer and return to Alabama to "destroy everything segregated I could find. "For an African-American in his upper teens in Alabama to even have that kind of thought was almost ridiculous," Gray said.
He said he couldn't prove to the audience he had made a secret commitment.
"But I can tell you what I did," Gray said. In 1954, he became licensed to practice law in Alabama. At age 24, he represented Rosa Parks after she refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. He was also Martin Luther King, Jr.'s first civil rights lawyer. Among the many cases Gray was involved with, he won Lee v. Macon, which integrated all state institutions of higher learning throughout Alabama as well as 104 of the then 121 elementary and secondary school systems in the state.
Gray said that some of the best advice he received was from his mother as a child. She told him he could be anything he wanted as long as he did three things: keep Christ first in his life; complete his education; and stay out of the criminal justice system.
"I found it to be good," Gray said. "It helped me, and it still helps me today."
Gray closed the symposium by saying that the legal profession is a noble one and is in need of good lawyers who are willing to accept challenges.
"Don't expect somebody to make a way for you," he said. "Find a way. Find some laws. Find some ways of correcting the ills that you see � and who knows? You may end up representing a person greater than Rosa Parks, greater than Martin Luther King or greater than Coretta Scott King. It's all in your hands."