Dear President Biden,
I am writing to, respectfully, ask that you award the Medal of Freedom to a pair of historically neglected American civil rights heroes. The persons I am referring to are Ms. Claudette Colvin (currently age 82) and Mr. Fred Gray (whose 91st birthday is December 14th).
Though she was only 15 and a schoolgirl at the time, on March 2, 1955, it was Ms. Colvin’s polite (and legal) refusal to surrender her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus that inspired the emulating heroism of Rosa Parks nine months later (December 1, 1955). The bogus charges against Claudette included violating the segregation law, disturbing the peace, and assaulting a police officer. Before December of 1955, Mrs. Parks led an NAACP youth group in which Ms. Colvin was a member.
As Ms. Colvin’s legal counsel, that same month (March 1955), 24-year-old attorney Fred Gray recognized an opportunity to end legalized segregation. Mr. Gray had hoped to use Claudette’s case and the appeal process to challenge the constitutionality of the segregation laws. But because the duplicitous and cunning judge anticipated the appellate threat to segregation, he affirmed only the bogus charge for assaulting a police officer. In a calculated and perverse manifestation of injustice, the charges for disturbing the peace and violating the segregation law were dropped.
In the months following Claudette’s case, behind the scenes, attorney Fred Gray and his close friend Rosa Parks strategized regarding how Claudette’s case could be used to end bus segregation. Then on Thursday, December 1, 1955, in what history misdocumented as a spontaneous coincidence of circumstance, Mrs. Parks was arrested for refusing to surrender her bus seat to a white person. In the weeks and months that followed, in addition to serving as Mrs. Parks’ attorney, Mr. Gray served as Dr. King’s attorney during the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
As the bus boycott rolled on, Mr. Gray conceptualized and garnered support for a constitutional challenge to bus segregation in Federal Court. With the help of NAACP lawyers in New York, Mr. Gray received the go-ahead from Dr. King (and other civil rights leaders) in Montgomery. Subsequently, Mr. Gray’s constitutional challenge of Alabama’s law was assigned to a panel of three Federal Judges.
With the case accepted, Gray had to find suitable plaintiffs to testify. Because selflessness, conviction, and courage were essential criteria, Gray prioritized meeting with Claudette and her parents. Gray selected five plaintiffs for his suit, Browder v. Gayle; Claudette was the youngest. Because Gray and his advisors deftly anticipated that nonsubstantive technicalities could be used by the segregationists’ defense counsel, Mrs. Parks was not among the plaintiffs.
During the trial, like a track coach strategizing for a relay race, Gray saved his most capable witness (Claudette) for last. Subsequently, in her testimony, Claudette delivered her “finishing kick” where segregation was most vulnerable. As Charles Langford, Gray’s co-counsel in Browder v. Gayle put it, “If there was a star witness in the boycott case, it had to be Claudette Colvin.” To which Fred Gray himself added, “Many persons had said that Claudette Colvin was not a good test case to integrate the bus lines, but they were wrong. I intentionally added Claudette Colvin as a party plaintiff because her case was a good ‘test case’; ultimately her case, in fact, desegregated the buses in Montgomery.”
Though their decision had only taken ten minutes, it was not until June 19th that the federal judges announced their 2-1 decision in favor of the plaintiffs. (That such a decision was announced on Juneteenth is quite a coincidence.) Upon reflection, Gray noted that “Browder v. Gayle is a landmark case and has been used many, many times as a precedent for declaring segregation in other areas unconstitutional.”
Mr. President, I hope you agree that Claudette Colvin and Fred Gray have earned the Medal of Freedom. Given their respective ages of 82 and 91, I am compelled to request that they be honored promptly. To further their case, various quotes that evince Ms. Colvin’s and Mr. Gray’s irreplaceable contributions to America’s Civil Rights progress appear on the following page. So too, if it would be of assistance to any staff members you might assign to validate this request, I can be reached by cell/text on ____________, by email to ____________________, or by reply letter.
Sincerely and respectfully,
Quotes Regarding the 1955-56 Montgomery, Alabama Civil Rights Heroism of Claudette Colvin and Fred Gray
“Claudette Colvin had more courage, in my opinion, than any of the [other] persons in the movement.” Attorney Fred Gray
“The real reality of the movement was often young people, and often more than 50% women.” Pulitzer Prize-Winning Biographer of Dr. King, David J. Garrow
“The testimony of…Miss Colvin and the others reinforced the Constitution’s position that you can’t abridge the freedoms of the individual.” Federal Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr., (who ruled with the majority to end segregation)
“Most scholars believe that this case [City of Montgomery v. Rosa Parks] ignited the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which spread across the nation and around the world. It ultimately helped this country elect Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States.…The arrest of Mrs. Parks set in motion the modern-day civil rights movement and gave birth to a world leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a future Nobel Peace Prize laureate.…None of us realized then that this was the opening event of the modern American civil rights movement.…But from the vantage point of more than a half century later, there is a direct correlation between what we started in Montgomery and what has subsequently happened in China, Eastern Europe, South Africa, Russia, and, even more recently, Egypt.…And it all started on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, with Rosa Parks on December 1, 1955. However, she was encouraged to do what she did by the action six months earlier by Claudette Colvin.” Attorney Fred Gray
“It’s [Claudette Colvin’s story] an important reminder that crucial change is often ignited by very plain, unremarkable people who then disappear.” Pulitzer Prize-Winning Biographer of Dr. King, David J. Garrow
“I don’t mean to take anything away from Mrs. Parks, but Claudette gave all of us the moral courage to do what we did.” Attorney Fred Gray
“When I look back now, I think Rosa Parks was the right person to represent that movement at that time. She was a good and strong person, accepted by more people than were ready to accept me. But I made a personal statement, too, one that she didn’t make and probably couldn’t have made. Mine was the first cry for justice, and a loud one. I made it so that our own adult leaders couldn’t just be nice anymore.” Claudette Colvin