On Sunday, May 8, The University of Alabama School of Law hosted the 2022 Alabama Law Commencement Ceremony at Coleman Coliseum. During the celebration, the School of Law awarded Juris Doctor Degrees to 133 students—including four J.D. students who took joint degrees in Business Administration, Social Work, or Civil Engineering and seven J.D. students who also took an LL.M (Master of Laws Degree) in Taxation or Business Transactions. An additional 11 students were awarded LL.M degrees in Taxation or Business Transactions.
The commencement address was given by attorney, child advocate, and nationally renowned motivational speaker, Liz Huntley—author of the memoir More than a Bird, a story of how one can triumph in the face of adversity.
“This is just a stepping stone. It is not your final destination,” said Huntley. “You are the gatekeepers of liberty and justice. You have been given a gift—the gift and ability to think like a lawyer and serve so many. The question is, what are you going to do with what you have?”
Early in her speech, Huntley highlighted the uniqueness of the 2022 Commencement Ceremony—which fell on the 50th Anniversary of the graduation of the first Black Law students from the University of Alabama School of Law. In a historic moment in juxtaposition to the 50th Anniversary, Dean Mark E. Brandon, by resolution of the Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama System, presented civil rights pioneer and attorney Fred David Gray with an Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree.
Among the many notable civil rights icons Gray represented—including Rosa Parks and other plaintiffs in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and participants in the Selma March—he successfully represented Vivian Malone and James Hood in their quest to enroll at The University of Alabama in 1963, playing an indispensable role in the legal desegregation of public education in Alabama and throughout the United States.
Despite being an Alabama native and holding true to a lifelong commitment to civil rights efforts in Alabama and in the South, Gray earned his Juris Doctorate from Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland, Ohio, because there wasn’t a law school in the state of Alabama at the time — including the University of Alabama — that would accept African American students. In fact, the State of Alabama would pay the tuition of Black students (including Mr. Gray) to study law elsewhere. Read more about the presentation of the honorary degree to Mr. Gray in this story.
For anyone who was unable to attend the graduation ceremony, a full video recording of the 2022 Alabama Law Commencement Ceremony is available on the Law School’s website.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – The University of Alabama presented civil rights pioneer and attorney Fred David Gray with an Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree during the School of Law commencement ceremony on May 8.
As one of the most prolific civil rights lawyers in the history of Alabama and the United States, Gray successfully represented Vivian Malone and James Hood in their quest to enroll at UA in 1963, playing an indispensable role in the legal desegregation of public education not only in Alabama, but throughout the United States. Among the many others whom he represented during his career were plaintiffs in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., participants in the Selma March, and the participants and families in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study class-action lawsuit.
“I am honored, appreciative and humbled that The University of Alabama has conferred upon me today an Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree,” said Gray. “When I was growing up as a youngster in Montgomery, Alabama, the cradle of the confederacy, I knew little about The University of Alabama except it was a university for white people and African Americans were not permitted to attend. It has special meaning to me because when I filed the case of Vivian Malone vs. The University of Alabama, I never dreamed that 59 years later it would be honoring me as it is today. My only concern was opening the doors so African Americans could attend.”
Despite being an Alabama native and holding true to a lifelong commitment to civil rights efforts in Alabama and in the South, Gray earned his Juris Doctorate from Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland, Ohio, because there was no law school in the state of Alabama at the time — including UA — that would accept African American students.
“We are honored to commemorate Mr. Gray’s direct role in desegregating The University of Alabama and ushering in a new era for our law school,” said Mark E. Brandon, dean of the UA School of Law. “The significance of presenting this honorary degree to Mr. Gray today is amplified because this ceremony marks the 50th anniversary since Michael Figures, Booker Forte Jr. and Ronald E. Jackson became the first African American students to graduate from The University of Alabama School of Law.”
Gray was born in Montgomery in 1930. As a student at Alabama State University, he vowed to “destroy everything segregated [he] could find.” Upon graduating from Case Western Reserve University School of Law, Gray returned to Montgomery and worked as a preacher in the Churches of Christ and as a lawyer. He later served in the political arena and was one of the first two African American candidates elected to the Alabama Legislature since Reconstruction.
Gray has received numerous honors over the years and has held prominent leadership roles. From 1985 to 1986, he served as president of the National Bar Association. Gray was elected the first African American president of the Alabama State Bar in 2002. In 2006, he was honored with the William Robert Ming Advocacy Award by the NAACP.
Gray is author of the books “Bus Ride to Justice: The Life and Works of Fred Gray” and “The Tuskegee Syphilis Study: An Insiders’ Account of the Shocking Medical Experiment Conducted by Government Doctors Against African American Men.” He is also coauthor of a new book “Alabama v. King” which will be available later this month.
Five years later, on Mother’s Day with her son cheering her on, she’ll cross the commencement stage to receive her Juris Doctor.
“Graduating on Mother’s Day, surrounded by my family, it’s almost a full circle,” Locke said. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for their support and faith in me.”
Growing up in Murphysboro, Illinois, Locke always knew she wanted to go to law school. She was inspired by her family’s dedication and service to the legal system — her grandfather worked as a police officer and correctional officer.
In 2017, Locke gave birth to her son, Quentin, while attending Southern Illinois University. She earned her bachelor’s degree in public relations in 2019. The single mother loved being close to family, especially after her son was born. But she dreamed of opportunities beyond her hometown as she applied to law schools. And then, Claude Reeves Arrington, associate dean of admissions for The University of Alabama Law School, called.
“Most schools send emails and letters when you’re accepted, but I vividly remember Dean Arrington calling me,” Locke said. “It was 6:30 or 7 p.m. and she was still in her office, but she called to tell me I was accepted and had a scholarship offer. The Law School personalized the process for me and that spoke volumes.”
As she was listening to Arrington talk, Locke’s mind quickly went to planning for her and Quentin’s future. Attending school more than 400 miles from her family support system would not be easy, but Locke was determined to let nothing stand in the way of fulfilling her promise to Quentin.
In addition to being a full-time law student spending 30 or more hours per week studying or in class, Locke also worked as a legal intern and research assistant part time to support herself and her son. As Quentin’s sole caregiver, if he was sick or his daycare was closed, Locke would have to miss class or work. But Locke said she quickly found “her village” in a supportive system of faculty, administrators and fellow students.
“There’s a stigma about law school that it’s a very cold environment, and you’re left to figure everything out on your own,” Locke said. “That hasn’t been my experience. My professors over the years have gone out of their way to ensure I had class notes and access to them during the times when being a mom took precedent. Even aside from school, there’s always been an intentionality to make sure that I as a person am OK and handling each aspect of my life.”
Locke felt called to help pave the way for others like her — parents who wanted to pursue law degrees. Locke got involved in Parents Attending Law School, a support and resource group that aims to assist students with local resources. She became its leader and biggest champion, working with school administrators to expand its efforts in attracting students with diverse backgrounds, increasing scholarship opportunities and more.
“I’m a student, but also a mom, because life still happens outside of law school, and we have to adapt,” she said. “I wanted to help other parents be able to come to and thrive in law school because life isn’t going to stop for school, so why not make it more accessible?”
Locke knows her time at UA has only furthered that promise she made to her son. After graduation, she will continue to pave her own path in Birmingham, as a first-year associate at Baker Donelson law firm.
“This is the start for me. I’m still figuring out my place in this world and what I can contribute to it, but this is definitely not the climax of my story,” she said. “All I can say is, stay tuned.”
Written by: Caroline Gazzara-McKenzie
Recently, Professor Joyce Vance interviewed United States Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta who reflected on her first year in office. Listen to the full interview on the CAFE INSIDER podcast.
On April 15, the University of Alabama School of Law – Office of Diversity & Inclusion hosted a free, virtual allyship training led by Amber Hikes (they/she), Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer of the ACLU. The training was offered to all students, faculty and staff and was focused on identifying how to best support historically underrepresented and marginalized people and groups who face the intersectional challenges created by overlapping and interconnected systems of discrimination and disadvantage.
“Allyship is a process of listening, learning, and empathizing,” shared Anil Mujumdar, Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Alabama Law. “By investing in the development of these skills we can foster better relationships and strengthen the organizations we are a part of. We are privileged to have the opportunity to hear from Amber—to learn how to make a seat at the table for everyone.”
About Amber Hikes (they/she)
Amber Hikes (they/she) is a social justice advocate, community organizer, TED Talk Speaker, and unapologetically queer and Black. As the ACLU’s first Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer, they provide vision, leadership, and direction for the ACLU’s nationwide strategy to support equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) across all aspects of the organization’s work and efforts. Amber serves as both the internal and external ambassador on the importance of EDI as a crucial cornerstone of the ACLU’s culture of belonging. Learn more by visiting her bio on the ACLU website.
“It was such an honor to speak and connect with the students and faculty of The University of Alabama School of Law. I was deeply inspired by the commitments the group made and the shared drive to build a culture of belonging and inclusion in their communities at school, work, home, and wherever they find the beauty of difference.” – Amber Hikes, Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer at ACLU
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