A key figure in the Civil Rights movement visited Vermont last week to commemorate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Fred Gray marked the holiday in a state with the smallest minority population in the country.
As VPR’s Steve Zind reports, the speaker drew a standing-room only crowd at Vermont Law School.
(Sound of Gray singing) “Â¿and before I be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my lord and be freeÂ¿”
They came to celebrate the birth of the Reverend Martin Luther King and to listen to Fred Gray. Gray is an Alabama Civil Rights lawyer who was King’s first attorney. He’s a dignified, soft-spoken man whose court victories have helped end segregation and outlaw discrimination.
Gray was 24 years old and fresh from law school when he took the case of his neighbor and friend, Rosa Parks. Her arrest sparked the civil rights movement of the 1950s. Gray says the movement has many unsung heroes. At one point he asked the fifteen year olds in the audience to stand up:
(Gray) “Â¿stay standing up just a minuteÂ¿”
Gray told the story of Claudette Carvin. In 1955, Carvin was a fifteen year old African American schoolgirl in Montgomery. She rode the city bus to school. Carvin was arrested when she refused to give up her seat to a white man. Nine months later, inspired by Carvin, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and the battle against segregation began. Gray says Claudette Carvin shows that young people can make a difference:
(Gray) “Claudette Carvin gave the moral courage for Mrs. Parks to do what she did, for Dr. King to do what he did and certainly gave moral courage to me to continue the fight that I had made a commitment to do.”
In an interview before his speech, Gray said he came to Vermont because places with small minority populations need to be reminded that racial discrimination is still an everyday occurrence in this country:
(Gray) “So I’ve decided, I’m gonna do two Martin Luther King speeches. I’m gonna do both of them in areas that have very small minorities. If people really know and understand and get a chance to know individuals, then there shouldn’t be any problems based on race. But we have to realize that there are problems and they are real and they are still here and we need to do something about it.”
Gray repeated that message during his speech. He said laws against discrimination aren’t enough. The country should strive to end racial prejudice with the kind of determination it’s shown in the fight against terrorism.
(Gray) “Now whenever there is a true commitment that we want to solve the race problems in this nation, and when this country is willing to commit the resources to it, then the problem will be solved.”
Gray said the Martin Luther King holiday is an opportunity not only to reflect on the victories of the past, but face up to the challenges that remain.
(Sound of singing “We Shall Overcome” to end and applause.)
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in South Royalton.