Democratic congressman from Philadelphia from 1979 to 1991, William H. Gray III (born 1941) became the highest-ranking African American leader in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives when colleagues elected him the House Whip on June 14, 1989.
William H. Gray III was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on August 20, 1941. He was the only son of Dr. William H. Gray, Jr., clergyman and educator, and Hazel Yates Gray, a high school teacher. Shortly after his birth Gray moved with his parents and an older sister, Marion, to St. Augustine, Florida, where his father served as president of Florida Normal and Industrial College. After a move to Tallahassee so his father could become the president of Florida A&M College, the Gray family moved to Philadelphia, where Dr. Gray became pastor of the Bright Hope Baptist Church.
During this time William, who lived with his family on the city's north side, attended public schools. He graduated from Simon Gratz High School in 1959 and enrolled in Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, majoring in sociology. Gray served as an intern for Pennsylvania Representative Robert N. C. Nix during his senior year in 1963. He also decided to become a minister at this time. In 1966, he secured a Master of Divinity degree from Drew Theological Seminary. While at Drew, Gray served as assistant pastor of the Union Baptist Church in Montclair, New Jersey. The same year he received his degree from Drew, Gray became senior minister of the Union Baptist Church and was installed by The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a close friend of the family.
During his pastorate at Union Baptist, Gray emerged as a leading community activist. He founded several nonprofit corporations, including the Union Housing Corporation, which developed housing for low-and middle-income African Americans. In 1970 Gray sued a Montclair landlord who, Gray contended, had refused him an apartment because of his race. In a landmark decision, the New Jersey Superior Court ruled in favor of Gray and awarded him financial damages as a victim of discrimination. He also pursued educational goals during this time and received a Master of Theology degree from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1970. That same year St. Peter's College in Jersey City, New Jersey, named him assistant professor. Previously he had taught at Jersey City College, Montclair State College, and Rutgers University.
After his father died in 1972, Gray was named pastor of the Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia, succeeding not only his father but also his grandfather, who had founded the 4,000-member church. A concern that the incumbent congressman from the Second Congressional District, the same Robert N.C. Nix with whom Gray interned years earlier, ignored the needs of African Americans in the congregation and the community helped persuade Gray to enter secular politics and run for that office as a Democrat in 1976. Though he lost to his old boss in the primary by 339 votes, he tried again in 1978 and defeated Nix, a ten-term incumbent, receiving 58 percent of the vote. In the general election in November he overwhelmed the Republican candidate, capturing 84 percent of the vote.
Early on, Gray established an impressive record as a congressman. During his first term in office colleagues elected Gray to the prestigious Steering and Policy Committee, charged with making committee assignments. He also landed a seat on the powerful Budget Committee, where he opposed President Ronald Reagan's budget cuts and worked with other members of the Black Caucus to expand social programs. In another committee assignment, Foreign Affairs, Gray successfully sponsored a bill that established the African Development Foundation, which provided American aid directly to African villages. This was the first time in the 20th century that a freshman congressman had secured congressional approval for a new program. Gray also pushed hard for sanctions against the apartheid government then in control of the nation of South Africa.
In 1981 Gray resigned from the Budget Committee and took a place on the House Appropriations Committee. But in 1983 he returned to the Budget Committee and a year later campaigned for the committee's chairmanship. By putting together a diverse regional and ideological coalition, Gray won and became chairman of the committee on February 4, 1985. Although some feared that the urban liberal would be unable to work with conservative Democrats, he proved them wrong. During his four years as budget chair Gray was successful as a coalition builder and in returning unity to the Democratic Party. To gain support from conservatives for a middle-of-the-road budget, Gray cut programs he personally favored. As a result of his willingness to compromise, Gray received the support of southern conservatives such as Texans Marvin Leath and Charles W. Stenholm, men who had earlier abandoned the Democratic budget and sided with Reagan Republicans. A tribute to Gray's abilities, the four budgets written under his leadership received a cumulative total of 919 Democratic votes in support with only 77 in opposition.
Forced to abandon the Budget chairmanship in the 101st Congress by a two-term rule, Gray next campaigned for the chairmanship of the House Democratic Caucus. On December 5, 1988, he trounced two opponents to become the first African American to win a top House leadership post. His meteoric rise to power did not end with this achievement, however. When the House Majority Whip, Representative Tony Coelho of California, resigned from office on June 15, 1989, Gray launched a campaign for that post. He withstood challenges from David E. Bonior of Michigan, who won this post following Gray's later resignation, and Beryl Anthony, Jr., of Arkansas, winning the number three leadership post in the House of Representatives on June 14, 1989. As the House Whip, Gray was the highest-ranking African American leader in the history of the House. Even before this success U.S. News and World Report had called him "one of the most successful Democrats of the 1980s."
Despite a heavy workload, Gray kept in close touch with his constituents. He continued to preach at least twice a month at the Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia, where his wife, Andrea Dash, and three sons, William H. 4th, Justin Yates, and Andrew Dash, lived in an integrated Mount Airy neighborhood. Articulate and well-informed, Gray continually won reelection to Congress by huge margins, gaining more than 90 percent of the vote in his 1988 and 1990 reelections. Based on his performance and his formidable political intuition, many thought Gray might become the first African American on a major party presidential ticket.
A New Direction
Gray continued to represent his district in Congress until the summer of 1991, when he gave up his seat to become president and chief executive officer of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). Though he described his new post as "a higher calling" as well as "a step up in public service," his move from the political arena was lamented by people such as Kitty Dumas of Black Enterprise who said "his departure dashed the hopes of many in the Black community that one of their own might control the House by the turn of the century." A glimpse of Gray's rationale was evident during a 1996 speech at Harvard University in which he said, "I believe that education is the key. And I believe that those institutions that have been bridges in my community … like the historically Black colleges, are going to be needed more in the future than they ever have been."
During Gray's tenure as head of the UNCF, he made a brief return to politics, but as a short-term special advisor to the president, not an elected official. In May, 1994, he began service as an unpaid advisor to President Bill Clinton in the administration's effort to restore democracy to Haiti.
Further Reading on William H. Gray III
A biography of Gray's life appears in Contemporary Black Biography, Volume Three (1993). An analysis of Gray's role as Budget Committee chairman can be found in Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report (August 2, 1986). Additional information on his voting record can be found in the semi-annual edition of Barone, Ujifusa, and Matthews, The Almanac of American Politics.