“As a result of Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement, we have opportunities that were literally unimaginable by earlier generations of African Americans and, for that matter, other minorities as well,” D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray said last night in a lecture entitled “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: His Impact on My Life.”
Speaking to audience members at Capitol View Public Library in Southeast, D.C., Gray continued, “While we’re by no means done with the work of the Civil Rights movement, it is truly remarkable to think about just how far we have come in the last fifty years.”
And he would know. As a college student in the early ’60s, Gray attempted to participate in George Washington University’s Greek life. “I was pretty much shut out of every fraternity,” he said. One fraternity brother informed the future mayor that he wasn’t eligible because the “national charter didn’t permit ‘Negroes and Orientals’ to be admitted,” Gray recalled.
But Gray pressed on and found a home with a Jewish fraternity, Tau Epsilon Phi (TEP), thus putting an end to the university’s theretofore all white fraternity system. Not merely content to break the color barrier, Gray shattered it by going on to serve two consecutive terms as fraternity president.
Not only did Gray and TEP desegregate their own organization, they also went around unleashing unmerciful beatings on all white fraternities, one at a time… on the basketball court. The Fighting Teps, as they were called, left an indelible mark on the intramural league, which garnered much more attention than it does today.
“We absolutely dominated the basketball court,” said Gray, who isn’t normally one for braggadocio. “It made sense after all: there were guys on our team who had they had the opportunity, and I think I was maybe one of them, we could have played on the varsity at George Washington University but we were shut out because of race.” Probably not coincidentally, a few years after The Fighting Teps wiped the floor with the all-white teams, the varsity was desegregated.
Aug. 28, 1963, Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech as part of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. King’s words, as well as his life’s work, resonated with a 20-year-old by the name of Vince Gray, who was at the Lincoln Memorial that day.
“As I set out on my professional career after college, Dr. King’s example of serving the underserved helped inspire me to work with the most vulnerable populations right here in the District of Columbia: people with mental retardation and young people who were at the margins of life, basically left homeless or otherwise completely disadvantaged.”
Gray ran for Council and then mayor because, he said, “I wanted to do all I could to ensure that those who are hurting and vulnerable in our city are given their fair share of the benefits that result from the massive renaissance that the District of Columbia has experienced in the last twenty years.”
Gray concluded his lecture by discussing an issue he’s championed tirelessly, and which has landed him in jail: D.C. statehood. “Every one of our 618,000 residents is just as disenfranchised as the average African American was in Mississippi in 1950,” Gray said.
He continued, “Dr. King himself recognized the unjust plight of the residents of the District of Columbia. In 1965 in a speech in Lafayette Park across from the White House, Dr. King said, Congress has been ‘derelict in their duties and sacred responsibility to make justice and freedom a reality for all citizens of the District of Columbia.’… He added, ‘Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy.'”