Guest Editorial: Activist Kevin Gray was larger than life, yet unassuming

Tuesday, March 7, 2023, Columbia lost one of its most unique individuals, Kevin Alexander Gray.  And I lost one of my most cherished friends.

Kevin was a soldier in the fight for equality.  From the local, burning the Confederate Flag on the Statehouse grounds with the Reverend E. Slave in protest of its place of prominence; to the national, as an important advisor to Reverend Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition, and one of Jackson’s campaign chairs when he ran for President in 1984; and internationally, as he worked to abolish Apartheid in South Africa with Nelson Mandela.

Michael Watts and the late Kevin Gray

I had the honor of his friendship for nearly 40 years.  A young wide-eyed 20 year old who wanted to change the community.  It was my father, Bobby Watts, who put Kevin and I in each other’s paths.  Dad, a Southern Baptist, had a deep penchant for writing Op-Eds in The Southern Baptist Courier challenging the Denominations views towards race and LGBTQ Rights.  Kevin, as Public Relations Director of the SC Department of Urban Affairs, reached out to Dad after reading his Op-Eds.  He was curious as to how Dad reached his views as a born & raised South Carolinian.  My Dad told Kevin he needed to meet me after their first talk. 

The Kevin Alexander Gray I met was larger than life, brilliant yet unassuming.  Only 7 years older than me he was way too cool and I was often intimidated and in awe of his photographic memory.  Be it books, music or movies he could rattle off lines word by word in an astonishing way.  He made me want to learn and he was a great teacher and mentor, a trait he carried with him each hour of the day.  Our relationship quickly evolved into a friendship, a brotherhood of respect for one another’s opinions.  One of Kevin’s greatest attributes was listening to everyone’s opinions.  However, he’d gladly tell you he disagreed with you in a mind-blowing, detailed, succinct, academically based way.

As friends there was never a dull moment, from him taking me to see Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band – they all knew each other – to Carolina Panthers and Clemson football games.  It was simply a blast.  Wherever we were, Kevin would hold court like a Jester – even people who didn’t want to like him couldn’t help it when he “did his thing”.

Kevin always spoke truth to power.  He was tireless and dogged in his quest for equality and justice for all people.  Be it disadvantaged youth, the incarcerated, or those devastated by natural disaster, especially in Haiti.  He was always there to help those aspiring to be public servants.  From County Council, my personal campaigns in 1992 & 2000, all the way to Presidential campaigns.  I encourage you to Google him for a fuller picture of the person he was. A quick trip to his restaurant, Railroad BBQ on Hampton Street will tell you all you need to know.  It is packed with memorabilia of the civil rights black folks fought for and continue to fight for – and the food’s great too!

This past season at a Panthers game some folks made an insulting comment to us while tail-gaiting.  Kevin quickly diffused the situation and they ended up joining us.  When I asked him how he could always do that, his reply was “I’m a Unicorn”. 

Yes you are, my friend.  Yes you are!

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