When Fred Gray was a high schooler in Nashville, he dreamed of going to Lipscomb University — which he could not, due to segregation. After becoming a lawyer he tried suing the school, and lost. Today, Gray helps raise money and teaches at an institute on campus that bears his name. And Lipscomb is creating the first public archives of his papers.
The Alabama native was in Nashville this week at a small fundraiser for the Fred D. Gray Institute of Law, Justice and Society. The program that teaches students to become leaders of social change was founded in 2007, but renamed in Gray’s honor last year.
Gray says, "For any institution — and particularly Lipscomb, with the relationship I’ve had with it and with Nashville over the years — to even offer to do [that], I consider it to be an honor."
This year, Lipscomb’s library has also begun archiving all of the existing records, memorabilia and recordings of his cases. To name but a few: Rosa Parks, integration at Alabama’s universities and making Martin Luther King Jr’s march to Montgomery possible.
Gray tells future civil rights leaders at Lipscomb that racism is still the underlying problem in America. And while he doesn’t think historic wrongs can ever be righted, Gray applauds the university for at least acknowledging theirs.
But school officials are still careful not to disparage their past even while trying to make amends. Steve Joiner heads the College of Leadership and Public Service, which houses the Gray Institute.
Says Joiner: "We were a segregated society, and we were racist. And one of the things is to move beyond that. We very much want to become relevant to the world we live in without being just disrespectful of the world we came from."
Joiner says one way to move forward is bringing Gray and other civil rights leaders, like Congressman John Lewis, to teach students several times a year.
Lipscomb has also started awarding annual Gray scholarships, to five students thought to have the most potential for changing society — like the Institute’s namesake.
The fundraising event was held at the newly renovated Woolworth on 5th in downtown Nashville, a famed site of lunch counter sit-ins in 1960.
Woolworth is the latest venture by serial restaurateur Tom Morales, who says this project was particularly personal to him. He says that after watching "historic building after historic building be torn down, I asked myself, what as an entrepreneur can I do and save it and figure a way to pay for the six-million-dollar investment it takes? So, some projects start with the business plan, this one started with the heart."
The historic restaurant is slated to open to the public next month.