Gray, William H. III 1941–
William H. Gray III 1941–
Clergyman, foundation executive, former congressman
William H. Gray III, a Baptist minister, was elected to Congress in 1978 and served for 13 years in the U.S. government before leaving to head the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). Despite some speculation in the media about Gray’s having been involved in shady financial dealings—speculation that led to no formal charges—Gray’s reputation with government figures in both the Democratic and Republican parties, as well as public interest groups and voters, remained very positive. His colleagues praised both his integrity and his cordiality. When he was the majority whip in the U.S. House of Representatives, his ability to forge coalitions and persuade other members to vote for measures he supported made him, according to Ebony’s Laura B. Randolph, “the highest-ranking Black in the history of the House of Representatives.”
“Gray’s dignified, intellectual style is very different from the kind of fiery personality usually associated with someone who is the minister of a large and influential Baptist church,” a Black Enterprise correspondent reported in a 1989 profile. But this style has apparently been an important factor in Gray’s success; even such House conservatives as Republican Jack Kemp have sung his praises. “He’s got integrity,” Kemp told Fortune’s Nancy J. Perry. “You can trust him.”
As chair of the House Budget Committee, Gray oversaw the first trillion dollar budget in U.S. history, managing to avoid some cuts in social spending sponsored by the administration of President Ronald Reagan. He was also a strong voice in Congress for sanctions against the racially discriminatory apartheid government of South Africa. He worked with the Congressional Black Caucus to fight what he perceived were assaults on civil rights and equal opportunities. As head of the UNCF, he vowed to bring the same resolve to his work on behalf of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
Gray was born in 1941 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His father, Dr. William H. Gray, Jr., was a minister and college president; his mother, Hazel Yates Gray, taught high school. Shortly after William III’s birth, the family—which also included William’s sister Marion—moved to St. Augustine, Florida, where the elder Dr. Gray took over the presidency of Florida Normal and Industrial College. He later moved on to head Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College in Tallahassee. In 1949, Gray’s father became
Born August 20, 1941, in Baton Rouge, LA; son of William H. (a minister and college president) and Hazel (maiden name, Yates; a high school teacher) Gray, Jr.; married Andrea Dash, April 17, 1971; children: William H. Gray IV, Justin Yates, Andrew Dash. Education: Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, PA., B.A., 1963; attended Drew Theological School, University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, Oxford University, and Princeton Theological Seminary; earned master of divinity, 1966, and master of theology, 1970.
Union Baptist Church, Montclair, NJ, assistant pastor, 1964-66, senior pastor 1966-72; St. Peter’s College, Jersey City, NJ, assistant professor and director, 1970-74; Bright Hope Baptist Church, Philadelphia, PA, pastor, 1972—; U.S. Congressman, 1978-91; vice-chair of Congressional Black Caucus; president of United Negro College Fund (UNCF), 1991—. Lecturer at Jersey City State College, Montclair State College, and Rutgers University.
Addresses: Office—United Negro College Fund, 500 East 62nd St., New York, NY 10021.
pastor of Philadelphia’s Bright Hope Baptist Church. It was here that William Gray III would come to maturity. He graduated from high school in 1959 and attended Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1963. During his senior year, Gray served as an intern for Pennsylvania Congressman Robert N. C. Nix, but politics would not, for the moment, be his career.
After graduating from Franklin and Marshall, Gray became assistant pastor of Union Baptist Church in Montclair, New Jersey; he also attended New Jersey’s Drew Theological School, earning a master of divinity degree in 1966. That same year civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., appointed Gray senior minister of Union Baptist. Gray did further graduate study in theology at the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, Oxford University, and Princeton Theological Seminary. The latter institution conferred on him a master of theology degree in 1970.
As pastor of Union Baptist, Gray was active in working toward civil rights, assisting in the establishment of housing projects for blacks in the community as well as in other struggles. In 1970 he sued a landlord in Montclair who, Gray contended, had denied him an apartment because Gray was black. Eventually winning the case in the New Jersey Superior Court, Gray received financial damages and set an important precedent. Two years later, after his father’s death, Gray became pastor at Bright Hope, using his position to advocate improved housing conditions for Philadelphia’s poor. During this time he was also a lecturer at Rutgers University and several other academic institutions and served as assistant professor and director of New Jersey’s St. Peter’s College.
In 1971, Gray married Andrea Dash, a marketing consultant, with whom he would have three sons, William H. IV, Justin Yates, and Andrew Dash. Throughout his career he would always regret not having enough time for his family. When Ebony asked him in 1987 for his most “embarrassing moment,” Gray related an anecdote about a disastrous family vacation: he and his wife received nearly identical leg injuries on the same day in separate accidents. “Friends who came to visit teased us about having had a violent confrontation,” Gray recalled, adding, “I learned that when you neglect your family because of your busy schedule, getting together can be cataclysmic and injurious to your health. I also learned that I am to spend more time with my wife so that people will not think that when we do get together the meeting is a violent one.”
In 1976 Gray moved into the political arena, challenging Nix for his congressional seat. He lost by a close vote and was encouraged to make a second try. An Ebony profile noted that Gray accused the veteran congressman of “exerting no real leadership” while his district suffered high unemployment and poor housing. In the 1978 primary he unseated Nix—a move that some black political figures saw as damaging to unity—and ran as the second congressional district’s Democratic nominee, trouncing Republican Roland Atkins in the November election.
Seated in January of 1979, Gray decided to commute from his district rather than take up residence in Washington, D.C. He was appointed to several committees, including Foreign Affairs and his party’s Steering and Policy Committee. He would eventually make headlines for his service on the Budget Committee, but he found his first term there deeply frustrating and often voted against his own committee’s recommendations. In 1981, after the political shift brought about by the election of Republican President Ronald Reagan, Gray resigned from the Budget Committee.
Gray also became vice-chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, and during Reagan’s two terms he worked to fight the conservative administration’s social agenda. He returned to the Budget Committee in 1983 and gained notice for his political acumen and personal integrity. In 1985 he took on the role of committee chair. Republicans and Democrats alike praised Gray for his ability to bring opponents together to achieve consensus. He was particularly careful to court the approval of southern conservatives of both parties, reflecting in the New York Times that his experiences as a youth in Louisiana helped him to do this. Gray attributed his overall committee success to previous experience: “Any time you pastor a Black church,” he remarked in Jet, “you learn the ropes—how to persuade, prod, negotiate, keep the peace and lead. This House job is no harder.”
Gray felt the same way about the budgetary wisdom pundits predicted he wouldn’t have; when a Fortune correspondent inquired about the source of his “financial training,” Gray asked rhetorically: “Did you ever try to run a Baptist church?” Scholar Cornel West told Black Enterprise that Gray was “one of the new breed of sophisticated black clergy who can effectively work within the political system without losing their moral direction.”
Fought for South Africa Sanctions
Perhaps Gray’s cause celebre— and certainly his greatest foreign policy concern—was fighting the apartheid government of South Africa, which, prior to its dismantlement in the spring of 1992, denied political rights to the country’s black majority. “The President of South Africa [P. W. Botha] said ’Every new investment is a brick in our continued existence,’” Gray declared in Fortune in 1987. “So why should the U.S. be shipping bricks? You don’t stop Communism by getting in bed with racism.” Gray and Texas Congressman Mickey Leland led the charge in the House for sanctions against Botha’s regime. Despite the Reagan administration’s stated policy of “constructive engagement” with South Africa’s white minority government, Gray and his antiapartheid colleagues succeeded in pushing through sanctions in 1985 and 1986.
Also in 1986 Gray spoke out against the repeal of the Clark Amendment, which had banned U.S. covert action in Angola. “I do not want to see communism expand in southern Africa,” he told Congress. “I have been there. I have been to each one of those front-line states. Every time the United States of America is perceived as siding with apartheid, what we do is strengthen the possibility of the expansion of communism.” Even so, he continued, Communist expansion “is not the issue.” The real matter “is majority rule, and freedom, and independence for people who are enslaved.” That year Gray and Leland attacked a remark by Reagan’s chief of staff, Donald Regan, who had asked whether American women were “prepared to give up all their jewelry” if U.S. sanctions affected South African diamond exportation. Gray called Regan’s question a “new level in sexism,” according to the New York Times. “I don’t think American women want to enslave 28 million other human beings just to have their diamonds,” he added.
In 1987, however, Gray and Leland took opposite sides on a Republican party-sponsored bill to punish the Communist government of Ethiopia economically because of its poor human rights record. While Leland, according to Black Enterprise, found the bill “scurrilous and absurd,” Gray supported it, demonstrating to his Republican opponents that his anticommunist remarks would be backed up with action. Leland, on the other hand, suggested that the bill was mere ideological bullying by the United States. Nevertheless, Gray consistently pressed for aid to independent African states and was one of the U.S. representatives at the celebration of Zimbabwean independence in 1980, an event he recalled with exuberance years later.
By 1987 Gray was one of the most visible House Democrats. “As glowing careers of other Democrats explode and fade around him like supernovas,” observed Perry in Fortune, “Bill Gray has become one of the party’s fastestrising stars.” The article even noted Gray’s slightly amused speculations about higher office: “Sure, Bill Gray would not mind being President of the U.S. at all,” commented the congressman. “But is that his goal? No.” A Business Week correspondent emphasized Gray’s “remarkable ability to adjust his style to the situation at hand. He can sound like a technocrat one minute and a Bible-thumping preacher the next.” Gray “is described by his colleagues as a superb politician,” the New York Times reported, “adept at building coalitions and unafraid to risk rejection.” He maintained this reputation throughout the decade—despite some criticism of his “glibness” mdash;and by 1989 Black Enterprise predicted that “William H. Gray III will definitely be a force to be reckoned with in the 1990s.”
Perhaps no one reckoned with the possibility that Gray would soon leave politics. In 1989 rumors of financial wrongdoing surfaced, fueled by a report by Rita Braver of CBS that unnamed Justice Department sources had begun a criminal investigation, with which Gray was not cooperating. Terry Eastland noted in American Spectator that the leak—neither confirmed nor denied by Justice Department officials until pressed by Gray into admitting he was not the target of the investigation—might have served the political agenda of President George Bush’s administration. Loyalists of Bush’s Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, Eastland wrote, “realized that if the talented Gray were Democratic whip, House Republicans would have a more difficult time challenging the Democratic majority.”
Though formal charges were never made, Gray’s political standing seemed to have been affected. He remained in Congress for some time afterward, pursuing his now-familiar agendas. In February of 1990 he spoke on behalf of the National Voter Registration Act, reminding those in favor of political caution that “making history is always risky business. But greatness is won in the margin of risk.” In the speech Gray also commented that “We hear even in South Africa the first sound, however faint, of the end of apartheid.” By 1992 the sound would become clearly audible as a white-only vote continued the reform efforts of South African president F.W. de Klerk.
Gray remained in Congress until June of 1991, when he announced his intention to give up his seat to head the UNCF. Time noted the rumors surrounding his resignation—that unspecified “investigations” might reveal wrongdoing—but conjectured that “the more plausible explanation is financial: leaving Congress will enable Gray to become a member of corporate boards and greatly increase his income.”
Kitty Dumas of Black Enterprise pointed out that Gray’s departure “left not only a void in the Democratic party leadership in the House of Representatives, but also in the Congressional Black Caucus.” Dumas further commented that Gray might well have been “elected by his peers to serve as speaker by the year 2000. His departure dashed the hopes of many in the black community that one of their own might control the House control by the turn of the century.” Gray, however, was quoted in Black Enterprise as saying that the UNCF post was “a higher calling” and “a step up in public service.” In an interview with the magazine a few months later, he said he wanted to make “a more focused contribution to the public policy by helping the education of African-American people at 41 Historically Black Colleges and Universities.”
Gray immediately set high goals upon his acceptance of the UNCF position, aiming to “double [the organization’s] annual contributions to [the 41 HBCUs],” meet donor Walter Annenberg’s challenge gift by raising an additional $200 million, and “work with [HBCUs] to develop special projects that will enrich their curriculum, improve their academic standing and their ability to attract the best students,” he told a Black Enterprise correspondent.
In addition, Gray stressed the need for the UNCF to function as “an advocacy group for higher education, but also [to] look at all the educational questions that African-Americans face.” Gray emphasized that the UNCF could help respond to the scapegoating of Affirmative Action and other programs by “[articulating] real solutions to real problems in this society” and by helping to “develop a new generation of leaders out of the underprivileged and the underclass.” UNCF board chairman Joseph D. Williams predicted that Gray would “be a major force in furthering the critical role of our traditionally black colleges and universities,” as quoted in Black Enterprise.
In April of 1992, at a Michigan dinner for the Urban League, Gray reminded the guests that the struggle for equality was not over and that they must not be “lulled to sleep” by the success of some black politicians. “This will be the most pluralistic and diverse society in the westernized world,” Gray remarked, according to the Oakland Press. “But if we don’t get over problems of racism and see the real issues, the U.S. won’t have a strong economy in the 21st century.” For this minister-educator-politician, the struggles of his lifetime had not changed: religious morality, education and political change remained inseparable strands. And he continued to view his past experience as providing indelible lessons; “Life belongs to those who are always climbing,” he told the Urban League, as cited in the Oakland Press. He went on to quote his grandmother, who once said, “Life for me ain’t been crystal stairs… and I’m still climbing.”
American Spectator, September 1989.
Black Enterprise, July 1987; January 1989; September 1991; November 1991; February 1992.
Business Week, September 7, 1987.
Congressional Digest, April 1986; April 1990.
Ebony, March 1979; September 1987; December 1989.
Fortune, November 9, 1987.
Jet, August 11, 1986; July 13, 1987; June 19, 1989.
New York Times, January 5, 1985.
Oakland Press, (Oakland County, MI), April 12, 1992.
Time, July 1, 1991.
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