Jerome Gray -- a slightly-built, soft-spoken Alabamian, spoke plainly but compellingly about the Voting Rights Act on the pages of this past Sunday's New York Times.
His words boom passionately to America as the U.S. Supreme Court debates the future of the pre-clearance provision of that civil rights legislation.
Interestingly, however, Jerome Gray is virtually unknown to most Americans and even here in Alabama.
Somewhat like Rosa Parks back in 1955, Gray is a quiet individual at the center of a momentous struggle. She too was a woman of slight size and quiet demeanor; but her refusal to sit in the back of the bus resonated dramatically throughout the nation and helped galvanize the civil rights movement.
Gray, shown in a Times photo and described in the story as a "slender, intense man with wiry gray hair and a slight goatee," still lives in his hometown of Evergreen, Alabama, across the street from the segregated school from which he graduated the year Parks sat at toward the front of that bus. He also is the same person whose name was deleted from the Evergreen voter rolls last summer.
Gray's Story Is Somewhat Like That of Rosa Parks.
This news story depiction of Jerome Gray, while compelling, is incomplete since it ignores the monumental role he has played in fighting for civil rights in the South over the past half-century. Just as those black and white photos of Rosa Parks could not capture the continuing fight she waged in her community, the Times picture and interview fail to communicate how much Gray has done for voting rights beyond Evergreen, beyond Alabama, and throughout the South.
My point is that Jerome Gray is a genuine "unsung hero" of the civil rights movement and what has happened thereafter; and the quiet man from Evergreen prefers that the world not sing his praises.
So, I would like to tell his story here, based on an extended, for-the-record conversation we had last year.
I know Jerome Gray; and I consider him a friend as well as a hero. We have worked together in Alabama's political trenches. He has helped me in electoral campaigns; he helped me on behalf of progressive laws and court decisions; and, to be candid, he has lectured me at times about my performance as an Alabama State Legislator, Alabama Secretary of State, and U.S. Congressman. Throughout, he has been driven by principle and practicality, with a sincere absence of self-promotion.
"I'm just not suited for getting out front, on the soapbox, or running for public office," Gray says. "My temperament is more like a termite; I like working quietly and effectively out of sight," explains the scholarly activist whose education and early career revolved around insects and biology.
From Teaching Biology to Civil Rights Activist.
Gray did not take a quick or direct course to the center of the civil rights struggle. After graduating from Conecuh County Training School in 1955 and Talladega College in 1959, he taught high school biology in Anniston. But he soon left the state to pursue his passion as a writer, making stops at Bishop College in Texas, Stanford University in California, Voorhees College in South Carolina, Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and New York's Yaddo Art Colony. He says he "got stuck" in trying to write, and returned home to Alabama. Dr. Joe Reed, a high school friend, pursuaded him to come to work as state field director for the Alabama Democratic Conference in 1976. The rest is history and a series of legal landmarks in racial equality.
Knowledgeable folk down here recognize Gray as a brilliant, determined, behind-the-scenes operative whose work has underlain monumental voting rights progress for African-Americans. As longtime field director of the Alabama Democratic Conference, he conducted key research and provided expert testimony that led to substantial advances for black citizens through the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Gray is rightfully proud of that progress; but he is just as proud of mentoring young people and women. "I like to think that I've helped people assume responsibility for helping others in their communities."
Heroes and Regrets
When asked to identify some of his heroes, Gray provided interesting comments. "Naturally, my heroes are my parents, Edith A. Gray and P. A. Gray, who met as Tuskegee students and served my home area for many years as educators. Also, Nehemiah, the biblical leader who led his people to rebuild Jerusalem. And I have special respect for ordinary people who serve for the benefit of others."
While his achievements have been significant, Gray has his regrets. "The judicial system suppresses the opportunity for African-American judges to get elected; therefore, there are too few minority judges. Also, I'm disappointed that white voters are reluctant to vote for black candidates like Barack Obama; we have backed whites for years but they are unwilling to support us."
What's Next for Jerome Gray?
Gray retired from ADC five years ago; and he worked for several years as a top assistant to the director of the Alabama Agriculture Department. But apparently he's retired for good now. These days, he's trying to draw attention to what he refers to as an African American leadership crisis. "Black organizations are suffering from neglect; and somebody has to step forward and rejuvenate these causes." He's also concerned that young African-Americans seem to have developed a sense of entitlement without understanding their history. "Our young people need to realize that they didn't get to where they are as soloists; they're part of a choir, with responsibilities beyond themselves."
Gray also has revived his literary interests. He's working on two books, one a training manual for people and groups searching for empowerment, and the other a collection of stories about ordinary people who do unusual things and help other people. It is clear that the latter project, which he describes as fiction based on real people, is his top priority; "I hope to finish that book before too long."
Here's wishing the best for my friend and unsung hero.