In November 1967, Dr Martin Luther King Jr travelled from America to North East England to receive an honorary doctorate in civil law from Newcastle University. In a moving and widely reported acceptance speech, King labelled racism ''the coloured man's burden and the white man's shame.'' Along with poverty and war, he identified racism as being one of the three great problems facing the world.
More than half a century later, many people will be inclined to say little has changed. I reflected on King’s powerful oratory before travelling in the opposite direction to the celebrated civil rights campaigner. During a road trip along the US Civil Rights Trail in Alabama, I called at the small town of Tuskegee and met Fred D. Gray, the attorney who represented King following his 1956 indictment for violating an anti-boycott law during the bus boycott in Montgomery, the state capital. At the age of 91, Gray is the oldest practicing civil rights attorney in the USA.
”Before that case took place, few people knew anything about Dr King. After the case had been tried for four days it was on the front page of the New York Times and other major newspapers,” recalls Gray passionately, identifying Montgomery’s bus boycott as a catalyst for the civil rights movement.
On 1 December 1955 Rosa Parks, a black woman, refused to give up her bus seat to a white man when the driver demanded she do so. That story is vividly brought to life at the Rosa Parks Museum on the campus of Troy University in Montgomery. Following her arrest, activists organised a boycott of the city’s buses by the African-American community. It lasted almost 13 months. Eventually the US Supreme Court would rule racial segregation on buses as unconstitutional.
”I represented Dr King and Mrs Parks…but my first civil rights case was Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old girl who did the same thing Mrs Rosa Parks did but without the knowledge and instruction that Mrs Parks had. That was the beginning of my career,” said Gray in the Tuskegee History Center. Information panels outline the story of the town, whose airfield was used to train the African-American fighter pilots during World War Two inspiring the film Red Tails.
The centre also tells the shocking story of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Conducted between 1932 and 1972, public health officials monitored latent syphilis in just under 400 African-American men without providing effective treatment. The names of all 623 individuals who participated in the study, including the control group, feature on a memorial inside of the centre. Gray represented the victims in a successful class action that culminated with an apology from President Clinton during a 1997 ceremony in the White House in Washington DC.
”As a teenager in Montgomery in the ’40s and ’50s I saw racial problems that needed to be solved…I concluded, while I was a student at Alabama State, I was going to become a lawyer in Alabama, pass the bar exam and destroy everything segregated I could find,” recalls Gray. ”With the help of a lot of people along the way, I think we’ve been able to solve some of those problems.”
The US Civil Rights Trail highlights locations connected with the lengthy struggle for racial equality. They include Selma’s arching Edmund Pettus Bridge. On 7 March 1965, a day known as Bloody Sunday, demonstrators intent on marching to Montgomery were attacked by police. JoAnn Bland was a child at the time. Leading tours of Selma, she shares memories of that day and what it was like to grow up in a segregated society – that meant being unable to enjoy the simple pleasure of ice cream at the drugstore counter on Broad Street. Novelist Harper Lee grew up in the quiet town of Monroeville. Her book To Kill a Mockingbird conveys elements of the prejudice and injustice that dogged America’s segregated Deep South. The town’s old courthouse was faithfully recreated as a set of the 1962 film version of the story, starring Gregory Peck, and is today a museum.
The trail provides a framework for exploring Alabama and gaining insights into complex issues whose legacies continue to impact American society and echo across the Western world.