Legendary civil rights attorneys discuss fighting for equality, from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to Black Lives Matter

Civil rights lawyers on battles they fought
Civil rights lawyers on battles they fought 06:23

"CBS This Morning" is honoring African-American icons who broke new ground and inspired others with our Trailblazers series in celebration of Black History Month.   

Civil rights attorney Fred Gray has spent over 20 years of his decades-long career mentoring fellow lawyer Benjamin Crump. Both men have dedicated their lives to fighting for the rights of African Americans and other underrepresented groups, proving that the battle for equal rights is just as important to take on today as it was in the 20th century.

Gray is a civil rights icon who famously represented Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. Born in Alabama, Gray is now nearing 90 and has seen and taken part in some of the largest cultural shifts the United States has experienced in its short but volatile history.

Benjamin Crump is 50 years old and has gained national recognition as the lawyer for the families of slain teenagers Trayvon Martin in Florida and Michael Brown in Missouri. Crump practices law in five states and Washington D.C.

The two were brought together at the Tuskegee History Center in Alabama to talk about their life's work and what it took to pave the way for countless others in the modern civil rights institute.

Fred Gray: Well when I was growing up in Montgomery in the '30s, '40s, '50s, there were basically only two positions that African-American boys could really look at as being professions that people thought a lot about. But we did have teachers and preachers. And I kinda decided that I would probably try to be both.

My father died when I was two. My mother was a domestic worker, only went to the fifth grade. But she told the five of us as we grew up in the west side of Montgomery, that we could be anything we wanted to be if we did three things-- one, keep Christ first in your life, second, stay in school and get a good education, and three, stay outta trouble. I tried to do all of 'em.

So in 1947 in December, I enrolled in Alabama State College for Negroes in Montgomery, living on the west side of town. And the school was on the east side of town, so I used the buses all the time for that purpose. By using the buses I observed that our people were mistreated - we were frequently asked to give up our seats to white persons. I observed that everything was completely segregated. And we had a family friend named E.D. Nixon who was very interested in civil rights and had been president of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP. He encouraged me to become a lawyer. I made a personal secret commitment in my upper teen age that I was gonna finish law school, come back to Alabama, take the bar exam, become a lawyer and destroy everything segregated I could find. 

Ben Crump: I wanted to be a lawyer ever since I was in the fourth grade. And much like my mentor, Fred Gray's story, there's certain things that trigger you to say you want to go be a champion for justice and an opponent to enemies of equality. And for me, that was when I was in the fourth grade growin' up in Lumberton, North Carolina. 

You know, "with all deliberate speed" from the Supreme Court decision in Brown didn't get to Lumberton until around the late '70s. And so in 1979, I was in the fourth grade. And that's when they, in Robeson County, bussed black children from south Lumberton across the tracks to the school in the white community that was a newer school with newer books and newer technology.  And all the black children got free lunch. And it would be a long line of us waiting. And you know, the little white children, they could go get à la carte lunches. And they could get cheeseburgers and pizza and French fries, everything that little children want. 

I kept thinking to myself, "Man, why is it that some people in certain parts of the community have it so good and others seem to have it so challenging in my community?" And I remember my mother told me it was because of Brown v. the Board of Education and Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP lawyers, why we got to go to the school with the new books and the new technology and new equipment. And I said to myself, "I'm gonna be like Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP lawyers when I grow up, because I want to make it better for people in my community and people who look like me." And from that day and to this one, that's what I've been striving to do. So, I always knew that I wanted to be a lawyer and fight for "the least of these," as my grandmothers say, that people who need a voice, the people who are often marginalized, disenfranchised and dehumanized. 
We are amazed — I am — at your recall. I mean, I pray, prayer, when I get to be 89 years old that I can recall dates and facts like you're doing now. I mean— 

Gray: I didn't have the privilege of going to any integrated anything.
Crump: Yes, sir. 
Gray: And my whole idea was to destroy segregation. I started going to the NAACP meetings. And I met Rosa Parks. Mrs. Parks and I developed a friendship because during her lunch hours, we would sit and share our lunches and talk about the problems. So on December 1, it was like any other day that we had talked. We had our lunch. Came back late in the evening, and I had phone calls from a whole lot of people. And I found out that Miss Parks had been arrested. 
I went over. She told me she wanted me to represent her. And I told her I would. But I also told her, I said, "You know Miss Parks, we've been dealing with this problem with the buses for a long time now. But, you know, there has been talk in the community about people staying off of the buses as a protest. And if we're going to do that, now is the time." 
To make a long story short, I left his house, went across town to Jo Ann Robinson's house, and we sat in her living room on the evening of December 1 and the morning of December 2 and made the plans for the Montgomery bus boycott. But then we said that we need to have the preachers involved in it.
Crump: Amen. 
Gray: That's how Dr. King was introduced. And then officially, Dr. King was made and appointed the spokesman for the group, and the rest of it is history.
Crump: I think a lot went into the background of people knowing about Trayvon Martin, and this kid who was walking home minding his business when this neighborhood watch volunteer with a nine millimeter gun profiled, pursued and shot him in the heart. And it was two days later, his father called... I cannot articulate the sound that was coming from his voice, this sound of heart-brokenness. He said, "My son, Trayvon Martin, was walking home from the 7-Eleven and the neighborhood watch volunteer shot and killed him."
There are two battles. There's the battle in the court of law and the battle in the court of public opinion. And I understood that the only way we were going to win this battle in the court of public opinion was going to be with the young people and the young energy and those young people who will become Black Lives Matter. It was the young people on social media who got Trayvon Martin to mainstream media. And it was a lesson now that has been duplicated dozens and dozens of times since then. 

Gray:  Frequently people will say, "Well, Fred Gray, they say you did so much in the civil rights movement. I never did see you out there marching." I say, "That's correct. I only march for ceremonial reasons. My role was not to march. My role was to get the law and have the law protect the individuals so they could march." The civil rights march consisted of a lot of people doing a lot of things. Some made speeches. Some marched. Some did legal work. But it took all of it. But it was because we worked together and was able to do it. But the struggle continues. 
Crump: I always marvel at what Dr. King said, when he said, "We all have a role to play in the struggle."