Councilman Larry Gray shares his mission, vision for Opelika, joining ranks of previous civic leaders
By Donna Williamson
Larry Gray has spent his life trying to find ways to “give back.” He retired from the Navy after serving 20 years and then spent the next 18 years working with multi-needs children at the Lee County Youth Development Center. He is currently in his seventh year as a member of the Opelika City Council, where he represents Ward 2.
Gray was born and raised in Opelika and graduated from J. W. Darden High School. He fondly remembers his football coach Jessie Dixon and other influential educators. “Coach Dixon touched my life and the lives of many. He gave us discipline and kept us off the street. Other educators who influenced my life and the lives of many others are W. E. Morton, Patsy and Bill Parker, Gladys Armstead and Bessie Brady, who taught in a one-room school. Bessie was self-taught, with no formal education,” Gray said.
After high school Gray couldn’t make up his mind what he wanted to do. “At the age of 21, I decided it was time to do something,” he said. “As a kid I was always fascinated by geography. I spent time in the library reading, and I wanted to see the places I had read about. I saw a sign that said ‘Join the Navy and See the World.’ So I did.”
When Gray returned from the Navy, he began working at the Lee County Youth Development Center as a detention specialist. Although a difficult job, it did have its rewards. Gray said, “When a kid whispered to me, ‘Thank you for what you did for us,’ that’s when I felt like I really got paid.”
Gray said he believes that education is the focus. He explained, “The root of everything is education. It should start early, and we must make sure the kids don’t fall behind. Get the parents involved and keep them involved. Opelika tries to meet the needs of its youth. We do a lot, but we could do so much more.”
According to Gray, additional youth basketball leagues at the Covington Recreation Center are needed. “Covington is accessible for many kids, and a recreation league there would help get kids off the streets,” he said.
“I am thankful for the guys who did so much for me and others as we were growing up,” he said. “People forget them. Robert Flournoy, Mike Covington, Willie Lockhart, Gene Lipston, Jerry Tinsley, Robert Fuller, Junior Wright, Pee Wee Wright, Ed Harper and Jabo Ruff were important in my life and the lives of others.”
Gray said he decided to venture into politics because he “cared about his community and wanted to serve.” He realized that neighborhoods in the south side of town had begun to deteriorate. “The people spoke loudly, and the council listened,” he said. “The city council passed a weed ordinance, along with stricter ordinances against structures that created eyesores, which were the breeding ground for criminal activity, varmints and critters. I see the changes in downtown, and I can see the same things happening in our area. We must all do our part. It’s not a sprint but a marathon.”
Heritage is important to Gray. He and others are concerned because the fence surrounding the baseball field at Bandy Park has been taken down. “The people in that community see the fence as part of their heritage, not just a fence,” he said. “However, the recreation people see the area as just dirt, and they tore down the fence to make a green area.”
Gray helped establish the Carver-Jeter Initiative. “We are looking for ways to bring these neighborhoods up. We want people to stay and build their homes here,” he said. “And we must not forget the people who came before us and paved the way.”
Through his historical research of the Carver and Jeter areas, Gray is focused on the African-Americans who influenced him and others in his neighborhood during the time of segregation and after.
“These are the people who took a personal interest in me and anyone else who would listen,” he said. “Robert Flournoy, director of Central Park Rec. (now Covington), who always found time for us youth; Malicah Summers, real estate investor; Joe Shorter, garage owner; Thomas Peters, mortician; William Peters, dry-cleaning business owner; Linsey Jackson, grocery store and nightclub owner; William Harper, first African-American to run for public office in Opelika; Albert Chambers, first Black commissioner and scout leader; Dr. Frank Clark, dentist; Dr. Frank Steele; Dr. Linsey; and Ms. Pearlie Hutchinson and Ms. Archibald, who were instrumental in voter registration back in the day.”
As city councilman and through the Carver-Jeter Initiative, Gray has the opportunity to find ways to ensure these influential African-Americans and their contributions are not forgotten. “One plan is to have streets and places named after some of them,” he said. “I am not important; these people are. I want everyone to know the role they played in my life and the lives of many others.”