Fred Gray Awarded the 2023 ABA Medal

photo of Fred Gray

The American Bar Association will award the 2023 ABA Medal, the association’s highest honor, to Fred D. Gray (LAW ‘54), described by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as “the chief counsel” of the civil rights movement. Gray will accept the award at the ABA’s Annual Meeting in August.

The ABA Medal is bestowed upon a lawyer for “exceptionally distinguished service ... to the cause of American jurisprudence.” Past recipients include lawyers who have served on the Supreme Court of the United States, including Chief Justices Warren E. Burger and Charles Evans Hughes, and Associate Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., Sandra Day O’Connor, Thurgood Marshall, William J. Brennan, Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Tom Clark and Felix Frankfurter.

Born Dec. 14, 1930, and raised in Montgomery, Alabama, Gray left to study law at Case Western Reserve when no in-state law school would accept Black students. After graduating, he immediately used his degree to tear down the walls of a segregated America. 

In a spectacular career that spanned more than six decades, Gray cemented his legacy alongside the very clients he represented, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. He was portrayed by academy award winning actor Cuba Gooding Jr. in the 2014 film “Selma.” 

Gray still practices law in Alabama and served as a member of the Alabama House of Representatives from 1971–2015. He successfully litigated four major civil rights cases before the United States Supreme Court including Gayle v. Browder (1956), NAACP v. Alabama ex rel. Patterson (1958), Gomillion v. Lightfoot (1960), and New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964).

In September 2021, Gray filed suit on behalf of the Macon County Commission regarding the presence of confederate statues on public property. On Oct. 26, 2021, the city of Montgomery changed the name of Jeff Davis Avenue (named for the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis) to Fred D. Gray Avenue, an event that made national headlines.

In July 2022, President Joe Biden awarded Gray the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. During the ceremony, Biden called Gray “one of the most important civil rights lawyers in our history… An ordained minister, he imbued a righteous calling that touched the soul of our nation."