Clay, William Lacy 1931–
William Lacy Clay 1931–
William Clay is a pull-no-punches congressman from Missouri who is not afraid to engage in burning rhetoric to get his views across. For example, Clay was an unabashed dove during the Vietnam conflict. In 1971, he was quoted in Newsweek as saying, “I think it is pitiful … that black people have to travel 15,000 miles to die for the rights of yellow people that black people don’t have.” A strong proponent of the view that in America, if you do not have political power, you do not have anything, Clay set about insuring that black Americans do indeed obtain strong political representation.
In 1993, Clay published Just Permanent Interests: Black Americans in Congress, 1870-1991. The book tells the story of every black member who ever sat in Congress and details the harassment most of them faced as they went about their elected duties. In a review, Black Enterprise magazine said Clay provides “his own insight into power politics and chronicles careers…. He deals candidly with the political mistakes of these early representatives.” Although the reviewer found some flaws with the book—especially in its coverage of more recent congressmen—it concluded its review by saying, “there is much to learn from all the untold stories in Just Permanent Interests. The telling may bring about a real understanding of political history and the black role in shaping our nation’s destiny.”
A congressman for more than a quarter century, Clay never limited his interests to his own 1st District in Missouri. He traveled the nation inserting himself in some of the toughest racial hot spots in the U.S., arguing all the while for racial justice and activism. But the skilled legislator also mastered that other key ingredient for a successful Washington, D.C. career: working behind the scenes to form coalitions. So adept has he been that he frequently ushered bills through Congress to get them enacted.
Clay was the fourth of seven children. His father, Irving, was a welder, and the Clay family did not have an easy time monetarily. They lived in a cold water apartment in St. Louis. In order to obtain a higher education, William Clay was forced to work two different jobs as he attended St. Louis University. He received degrees in political science and history, and upon graduation in 1953, was promptly drafted into the U.S. Army.
Clay was discharged honorably two years later, but he shook things up while in uniform. Clay criticized the army’s unwritten policies that segregated blacks and whites in swimming
Born William Lacy Clay, April 30, 1931, in St. Louis, MO; son of Irving (a welder) and Luella (Hyatt) Clay; married Carol Johnson, October 10, 1953; children: Vicki, Lacy, Michelle. Education: St. Louis University, B.S., 1953. Politics: Democrat.
Life insurance company manager, 1959-61; 26th Ward, St Louis, alderman, 1959-64; State, County, and Municipal Employees Union, St. Louis, business representative, 1961-64; real estate broker, 1964—-; Steamfitters Local 562, St. Louis, education coordinator, 1966-67; U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, D.C., congressional representative from the 1 st District of Missouri, 1969—. Author of Just Permanent Interests: Black Americans in Congress, 1870-1991, Amistad Press, 1993. Military service: U.S. Army, 1953-55.
Addresses: Office— U.S. House of Representatives, 2470 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515.
pools, barber shops, and social clubs. Segregation had been outlawed in the armed forces in the 1940s, and Clay made it his duty to remind his superiors of the law. Returning to St. Louis, Clay kept up his activism, organizing sit-ins and demonstrations. Most were geared towards addressing inequalities between whites and blacks in the job market, but all were part of what Clay would later fondly recall as the “Great Movement”—the Civil Rights struggles of the late 1950s and 1960s. In 1963, he spent 112 days in jail for participating in a civil rights demonstration.
From the late 1950s onward, Clay pursued his activism through politics. In 1959, he was elected to the Board of Aldermen, his first political post, and won reelection four years later. During the same period he began forging links to organized labor that he would maintain and strengthen throughout his political career. Clay became business representative to Mississippi’s largest governmental employees’ union, and later worked for the Steamfitters Union coordinating employment opportunities in the field for African Americans. To make money during the early 1960s, he held a variety of jobs in the insurance and real estate fields, and ran a cocktail lounge called the Glow Worm. He had also married and started a family.
In an article from a 1975 issue of Ebony, Clay looked back on the Civil Rights movement and cautioned black America that a new struggle—one for economic equality—still existed. He wrote: “Gone are the [antagonistic authorities such as Birmingham, Alabama’s police commissioner] Bull Connors, the lunchroom proscriptions, the manifest indignities that applied across the board and galvanized our spirit. The new, and indeed racist and shrewd, second-line opposition of institutional America now seeks to overshadow our common interest by rewarding a select few blacks with tickets to the good life, thus dousing the fires of a much-needed potential source of leadership. Perhaps the simple truth is that before, we had a single objective that fused us into one politically-animated mass. Now, in our quest for economic equality, we do not.”
In 1968, Clay ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, attracting national attention because he was black. In that year, the country was experiencing a shift to the political right. But some black office seekers, primarily Democrats, benefitted from a Supreme Court decision mandating redistricting in some areas of the country. The decision forced all districts to be substantially equal in population, which had an immediate effect on blacks living in urban areas. In 1968 only six African Americans held positions in Congress; Clay, then 35 years old, wanted to be the seventh. In the primary he defeated three other blacks and a white politician and then squared off against a black republican opponent running on a “law-and-order” ticket.
In a profile of that race, the New York Times called Clay “an unabashed liberal” who already was looking beyond the confines of Missouri’s 1st Congressional District. He was quoted as saying, “I will need all the office staff I can get…. I figure my constituency will stretch from the Mississippi River to about the Rocky Mountains.” The article noted that the entire geographic area Clay cited did not have a black congressman, adding, “Mr. Clay is happily presuming that blacks who live there will look to him to champion their cause.” And they did.
Upon going to Washington—especially after his second-term victory, by a landslide in 1970—Clay plugged himself into various racial hot spots around the nation, often through his leadership position on the Congressional Black Caucus. As Newsweek magazine wrote in a flattering profile of him in 1971, “A lean, open man, Clay more than any single colleague transformed the caucus from ‘a small group of pals doing nothing,’ as one member recalls it, into a significant new force on Capitol Hill.”
In December of 1969, Clay joined four other black congressmen on a tour of a Chicago housing project where a police raid resulted in the shooting death of Black Panther leader Mark Clark. The congressmen were critical of the police and Clay criticized city officials who denied the black leaders a room in the federal office building, claiming, in a New York Times story, that the city “couldn’t guarantee our safety.”
Five months later, in May of 1970, Clay was at Jackson State College in Mississippi when two blacks were killed and several wounded, in a clash with Mississippi police. And in March of 1972, Clay chaired some Congressional Black Caucus hearings concerning the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which the caucus said was allowing public air waves to be used unfairly. Clay was especially upset that the FCC, then under President Richard Nixon’s control, had no black members. He was quoted in the New York Times as saying black journalists are “grossly excluded, distorted, mishandled, and exploited by the white-controlled news media.” The outburst was vintage Clay.
Never one to hold back his strongly-held opinions, Clay’s skill with fiery speeches capable of inciting his audiences, got him into a bit of trouble in July of 1971, when he attacked then-Vice President Spiro Agnew on the floor of the House. Agnew had made speeches criticizing American black leaders for their “querulous complaints.” Responding to Agnew, Clay was quoted in the New York Times as saying on the House floor: “In my opinion, our Vice President is seriously ill. He has all the symptoms of an intellectual misfit. His recent tirade against black leadership is just part of a game played by him…. Apparently, Mr. Agnew is an intellectual sadist….” The House Republican Leader, Gerald Ford, was outraged by Clay’s comments and demanded an apology. Clay’s response? “Gerald Ford suffers from the same illness Agnew suffers from.”
In Congress, Clay chaired the subcommittee on Libraries and Memorials and served on the Committee on Investigations and the Committee on Education and Labor. Clay also focused on issues relating to the U.S. Postal Service, eventually assuming the chairmanship of the Post Office and Civil Service Committee. In 1972, he attacked the postal system for its alleged unsafe working conditions, saying in the New York Times, “The Postal Service has disregarded unsafe working conditions in its facilities and has the highest accident and injury rate of all Federal agencies.” More than 20 years later he was still pressuring the service, this time for its budget overruns.
Clay’s one embarrassing oversight in regards to his adversary came in 1984, when it was revealed that his office failed to pay $1,663 in postage from his 1982 campaign. Clay paid up immediately. The disconcerting episode didn’t prevent Clay from monitoring the U.S. Postal Service. In 1993, Clay was quoted in the Washington Post as telling the postmaster general, “Rather than attempting to make Congress the scapegoat of the next postal rate increase, you should focus your efforts on stemming the growing red ink in Postal Service operations.”
Clay was also a leader in trying to amend the so-called Hatch Act, a 1939 piece of legislation that prohibited federal employees from engaging in political activity. Clay was quoted in the December 1977 Congressional Digest as saying, “Prohibiting voluntary, off-duty political activity of government employees is very serious business. It flies in the face of the guarantees of the first amendment. When we attempt to prohibit or regulate these activities, we deny free speech and free association. For this body or any other body of government to do that, there must be a compelling interest and overwhelming justification.”
In 1992, serving under his first Democratic president in a dozen years, Clay was credited with one of President Bill Clinton’s first successes in office. Clinton signed a bill that Clay had worked on passing for seven years: the Parental and Medical Leave Act. That legislation gives employees several weeks of unpaid leave to care for newborns, adopted children, or sick family members. More importantly, the legislation protects the rights of those workers and prohibits them from being fired for taking the time off work. Back in 1987, when the bill was still being debated, the New York Times editorialized in favor of the Clay family leave bill, saying, “Such a national policy, promoting health, job, and family stability, would show, again, how the goals of the women’s movement turn out to benefit men.”
Clay, who supports busing to achieve educational equality and is pro choice on the abortion question, fought a tough battle earlier in the decade. The two controversial issues were forced by his tough opponent to become the centerpieces of Clay’s 1982 reelection bid. This opponent, a white, liberal Republican, criticized the fact that Clay missed 1,500 votes in Congress and often traveled in the first class sections of airplanes. In the New York Times, Clay responded that he did not miss important votes, merely “nuisance votes” on procedural matters. As for his traveling style, Clay retorted, “I always ride first class because I’m a first-class person. Anyone who’s second-class shouldn’t even think about running for Congress.”
During that election, Clay also took some heat for his statement, “I don’t represent all people.” As he explained in the Times, “I represent those who are in need of representation. I have no intention of representing those powerful interests who walk over powerless people.” Throughout his congressional career, and indeed throughout his entire career in public service, the theme of representation and the need for political power in the United States have been a key part of Clay’s thinking.
One of the clearest statements of Clay’s philosophy of representation came when he spoke before the 26th Biennial Convention of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) Federation of Government Employees in Chicago in 1975. In that speech, reproduced in Ebony, Clay told the mixed race audience: “You are the new niggers in our society and don’t forget it…. If you object to unfair treatment, you’re an ingrate. If you seek equity and decent consideration, you’re uppity. If you demand union security, you’re un-American. If you rebel against repressive management tactics, they will lynch and scalp you. But if you are passive and patient, they will take advantage of both [traits]….”
He continued: “Therefore, I say to you … that if you want equity, justice, and equality, you must follow the lead of the civil rights movement, the student movement, the women’s movement. Become irritants, become abrasive. Your political philosophy must be selfish and pragmatic. You must start with the premise that you have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, just permanent interests.”
Nearly 20 years later, Clay still believed that unrepresented people must struggle for power. In 1993, Clay described his guidelines for that struggle in Ebony, contending, “Rule number one … is take what you can, give what you must. Rule number two is take it whenever, however, and from whomever. Rule number three is if you are not ready to abide by the first two rules you are not qualified for a career in politics.”
Black Enterprise, June 1993, p. 23.
Christian Science Monitor, February 19, 1993, p. 14.
Congressional Digest, December 1977, p. 296.
Ebony, September 1975, p. 29; November 1978, p. 29; May 1993, p. 67.
Newsweek, June 7, 1971, p. 32.
New York Times, October 3, 1968, p. 43; December 21, 1969, p. 47; May 19, 1970, p. 1; July 23, 1971, p. 39; March 9, 1972, p. 19; March 27, 1972, p. 38; December 19, 1972, p. B-2; August 16, 1974, p. 39; August 3, 1982, p. 12; July 21, 1983, p. 22; April 23, 1984, p. B-7; January 18, 1987, sec. 4, p. 28.
Washington Post, July 30, 1993, p. A-19.
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Clay, William Lacy
Clay, William Lacy
April 30, 1931
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Congressman William Clay was the son of Luella and Irvin Clay, a welder. He attended the city's public schools, helping to support himself by working as a tailor and a salesman in a clothing store. He then attended St. Louis University, graduating with a B.A. in 1953. Following his graduation, Clay was drafted into the army. After his discharge in 1955, he returned to St. Louis and worked several years at such jobs as insurance salesman and bus driver. Meanwhile, he became active in civil rights efforts in association with the St. Louis branch of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1959, with aid from group members, Clay was elected to the St. Louis Board of Aldermen. During his first term, he sponsored passage of the city's first Fair Employment Act. Reelected in 1963, he proposed an ordinance banning discrimination in public accommodations, but he resigned from the board shortly after and was selected for the more influential post of Democratic ward committeeman.
Clay became involved in political organizing while on the board of aldermen. In 1961 he was named business representative for the city branch of the state, county, and municipal employees' union. He also engaged in civil rights work and spent four months in prison in 1963 following a demonstration at the city's Jefferson Bank and Trust Company. In 1966 he became election coordinator for the local branch of the powerful steamfitters' union.
In 1968 a black majority congressional district opened up in St. Louis following redistricting. Clay won a five-person Democratic primary by 6,500 votes, then handily defeated his white Republican opponent in the general election to became Missouri's first black member of Congress. Initially Clay was assigned to the Education and Labor Committee, where he called for a raise in the minimum wage and for stronger fair employment laws. As head of the Labor-Management Relations Subcommittee, he began a long-standing effort to pass legislation requiring employers to hire back striking workers following settlement of labor disputes. As head of the Subcommittee on Pensions, Clay won changes in laws to allow workers to be vested in their retirement system after fewer years of experience.
In 1975 Clay was the target of investigations following charges that he had engaged in drug trafficking and evaded income taxes. Although exonerated of any drug charges by the Justice Department, he sharply criticized what he claimed were politically motivated attacks on his character. He was also embarrassed in 1992 by revelations that he had overdrawn 290 checks on his account in the House bank. Despite both attacks, Clay was easily reelected in both 1976 and 1992.
Long a member of the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee, Clay was named chair in December 1990, a post he held for four years. During his tenure he sponsored legislation extending job-safety protections to post office workers and worked to amend the Hatch Act to permit lobbying and voluntary political action by federal workers.
Clay is the author of Thoughts on the Death Penalty (1976), an investigation of capital punishment; and Just Permanent Interests (1992), a history of blacks in Congress.
Clay retired from Congress in 2000 to be replaced by his son, William Lacy Clay, Jr. In 2004 Clay published his autobiography: Bill Clay: A Political Voice at the Grass Roots.
See also Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
Christopher, Maurine. Black Americans in Congress. New York: Crowell, 1976.
Clay, William L. Just Permanent Interests: Black Americans in Congress, 1870–1991. New York: Amistad, 1992.
Clay, William L. Bill Clay: A Political Voice at the Grass Roots. St. Louis: University of Missouri Press, 2004.
greg robinson (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005
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