Fred Gray, iconic civil rights attorney and CWRU School of Law alum, receives Presidential Medal of Freedom

photo of Fred Gray

One of Case Western Reserve University’s most iconic alumni—the man Martin Luther King Jr. called the “chief counsel for the protest movement”—received one of the highest honors bestowed on a United States civilian on July 7.

Fred D. Gray, Case Western Reserve School of Law alumnus from the class of 1954 and internationally renowned civil rights attorney, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Joe Biden in a special White House ceremony.

Gray has spent nearly seven decades as a civil rights lawyer, representing King , Rosa Parks, and John Lewis. He successfully litigated four civil rights cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and defended countless sit-in demonstrators, freedom riders and victims of the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment.

“This award means a great deal to me, an African American civil rights lawyer who was born in the ghettos of Montgomery, Alabama,” Gray said in a statement. “It speaks volumes to civil rights workers who have devoted their talents and resources toward improving the quality of life of Americans in this country, and it speaks directly to African Americans in general.”

At age 91, Gray is still a practicing attorney in Alabama.

School of Law co-deans Jessica Berg and Michael Scharf nominated Gray for the award in March.

“We cannot think of an individual more fitting to receive the country’s highest civilian honor,” Berg wrote to President Biden. “We respectfully submit that his life’s work demonstrates that he is a leading defender of human rights and freedom.

“Mr. Gray unflinchingly set out to eradicate the ills of segregation. We consider it a great privilege and honor to lead the institution where he chose to pursue his legal education. Most importantly, the work of Attorney Fred Gray has undeniably been essential to the pursuit of racial equality in the United States.”

According to a White House statement, the medal honors individuals who have “made an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”

Others receiving the honor this year include: Simone Biles, the most decorated American gymnast in history; Megan Rapinoe, an Olympic gold medalist and two-time Women’s World Cup champion; Denzel Washington, an actor, director and producer; and posthumous awards to Steve Jobs, co-founder, chief executive and chair of Apple; and John McCain, a lifelong public servant, awarded a Purple Heart with one gold star for his service in the U.S. Navy in Vietnam, who also served the nation as a member of the House of Representative and the U.S. Senate.