C. Michael Gray, a retired professor from Ohio University and the first African American man to work as a commercial lender at the First National Bank in Minneapolis and a regional council for the FDIC, gave a lecture in honor of Black History Month detailing his firsthand experience in the civil rights movement.
PROVO, Utah (Feb. 18, 2016)—In his 1995 autobiography, Nelson Mandela wrote, “I have crossed famous rivers.” According to C. Michael Gray, the saying means that one has traveled a great distance, met interesting people and done interesting things.
This saying was the basis of a lecture given at BYU by Gray, a retired professor from Ohio University, in honor of Black History Month. Gray noted that through his life, he himself has “crossed famous rivers” as he worked as a part of the civil rights movement, working to address what W.E.B. Du Bois called the major problem of the 20th century, “the problem of the color line.”
Gray’s life has been framed by civil rights moments and the people and experiences that prepared him to cross the color line. He credits the beginning of his famous river crossings to his parents, who were civil rights pioneers. He recalled a photograph of his mother meeting Jackie Robinson in 1957 and how that influence and example created his understanding from an early age of the importance of crossing famous rivers.
This realization became especially important in Gray’s education as he attended first a segregated elementary school and later, after his parents and others sued their local school board in 1955 under the Brown vs. Board decision, integrated schools.
“My parents and my neighbors and my teachers were preparing me and my classmates in these segregated schools for a world, a country, that they knew was on the horizon. And I thank them a thousand times for pushing us across famous rivers,” he said.
Gray said he was lucky enough to get the best of both worlds: the resources only available at the time in once segregated white schools, but the care, direction and nurturing offered at segregated black schools. His teachers and parents “knew opportunities they never had, could only dream about, would be knocking at our doors, and the question would be: Would we be ready to walk through the doors?”
Through what he described as the hostile environments of integrated elementary school, junior high and high school, Gray found ways to “develop people skills for survival.” He recalled his daily lunch routine while at Marshall University Laboratory, a private all white junior high, where his parents had sent him to receive the best education possible to make up for an early speech impediment he struggled with as a child. As the first black student at the school, he would purposefully walk close to his white female classmates, which deterred his male classmates who might have harassed him.
He compared his struggle for survival to the students in another state who were going through similar experiences: “In 1957, I would watch the news about Little Rock Nine. I wanted to tell my parents, you can turn that off, I can tell you what’s going on five blocks away at Marshall.”
Crossing famous rivers became an even greater part of Gray’s life as he entered high school and college. He attended both the 1963 March on Washington and the last leg of the 1965 march from Montgomery to Selma, despite the overwhelming danger.
All of these experiences prepared Gray to become the first black man to work as a commercial lender at the First National Bank in Minneapolis and a regional council for the FDIC. He said, “Being forced to cross famous rivers, choosing to cross famous rivers, stepping out of my comfort zone—all of it prepared me for many of those opportunities that did knock, and I was prepared to deal with those types of situations.”
Gray ended his lecture with advice for his listeners on crossing their own rivers: “I say to you what Maya Angelou said in a famous book of hers, ‘I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.’ Let me tell you what your decision is. Your decision is: Do you make sure that you cross these famous rivers, make sure you meet interesting folks, go interesting places, do interesting things with your spare time? . . . Cross famous rivers because there will come a time when you’re going to review your life . . . and the question is, will you be saying what Maya Angelou would say?”
—Alison Siggard (English Education ’17)
Alison covers Africana Studies for the College of Humanities. She is a senior studying English teaching with a minor in music.