Legendary civil rights activists Fred Gray and Diane Nash are set to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. On July 1, President Biden announced this year’s honorees for the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This esteemed award is presented to individuals who have made notable contributions to the prosperity, peace and security of the United States.
Gray and Nash are among 17 recipients who will be honored with the prestigious award. Both made an indelible mark on the civil rights movement.
In 1959, Nash moved to Chicago from Nashville, where she attended Fisk University. However, the young activist was shocked by the overt racism she encountered upon settling in the South. Working alongside Rev. James Lawson and the late great Martin Luther King Jr., Nash helped to co-found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. This youth-led collective organized some of the most critical civil rights campaigns in the 60s. Nash played an integral role in the desegregation of lunch counters across the South.
“We presented Southern white racists with a new set of options,” Nash said in 2013, according to the Tennessean. “Kill us or desegregate.”
Nash and her SNCC comrades were also prominent figures behind the Freedom Rides and the 1963 March on Washington that advocated for economic and social justice for Black Americans. Martin Luther King described the fearless leader as a “driving spirit in the nonviolent assault on segregation.”
As an attorney, Gray helped several prominent civil rights activists land historic courtroom victories, including Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks, who were both charged with disorderly conduct after they refused to give up their seats on a segregated bus in Montogomery in 1955. In fact, Colvin was his first client.
Eventually, Gray filed a massive petition challenging the constitutionality of the racist state law in the Browder v. Gayle case. Because of his hard work and diligence, “in November 1956, the Supreme Court affirmed the lower court ruling that racial segregation on public transportation was unconstitutional,” Standford University noted. Martin Luther King Jr. called Gray “the chief counsel for the protest movement.”
In 1970, Gray was elected to the Alabama State Legislature as a representative from Tuskegee. The historic election made him one of the first African American officials to serve in the southern state legislation since the Reconstruction Era.
Today, the 91-year-old lawyer still practices law at his Tuskegee office in his hometown of Montgomery. In a statement, Gray thanked President Biden for the legendary honor.
“This award means a great deal to me, an African American civil rights lawyer who was born in the ghettos of Montgomery, Alabama,” he said. “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,” he continued.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony will take place at the White House on July 7.
“When I filed the various civil rights cases from 1955 to date, I was concerned about African Americans receiving the same constitutional rights as all other Americans,” Gray added. “We have made substantial progress, but the struggle for the elimination of racism and for equal justice continues. I hope this award will encourage other Americans to do what they can to complete the task so that all American citizens will be treated the same, equally and fairly, in accordance with the Constitution.”
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