Obituary: William H. Gray III / Became highest-ranking black lawmaker in U.S.

Aug. 20, 1941 - July 1, 2013


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William H. Gray III, a third-generation Baptist minister from Philadelphia who won a seat in Congress in 1978 and rose to become the nation's highest-ranking black lawmaker, died Monday in London. He was 71.

He died while attending the Wimbledon tennis tournament with his son Andrew, said William Epstein, who was Mr. Gray's communications director in Congress. Mr. Epstein said Mr. Gray had not been ill, and that the cause was not immediately clear.

Mr. Gray, who served in the House from 1979 to 1991, was a persistent voice for equal rights, education and services for the poor, in the United States and abroad. He pressed for more economic aid for Africa and was a leading critic of South African apartheid, helping shape U.S. policy, including sanctions, against that country. He led the House Budget Committee in the 1980s, and fellow Democrats chose him as majority whip in 1989, the third-ranking House leadership post.

Two years later, Mr. Gray surprised many people when he resigned to become president and chief executive of the United Negro College Fund. He went on to lead the nonprofit to record fundraising. The fund's website says Mr. Gray raised more than $2.3 billion while he led the fund, from 1991 to 2004.

"Bill Gray was a trailblazer," President Barack Obama said in a statement, "the first African-American to chair the Budget Committee and to serve as the majority whip."

In 1994, President Bill Clinton appointed Mr. Gray as a special adviser on Haiti.

Six years before he was elected to Congress, Mr. Gray became pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church in North Philadelphia, and he would serve as pastor for 35 years. He succeeded his father, William H. Gray Jr., who preached there for 22 years, and his grandfather, William H. Gray Sr., who served from 1925 until his death in 1949. While in Congress, he would return to Philadelphia on weekends to preach.

Mr. Gray had not held elected office when he first ran for a House seat, in 1976, challenging longtime incumbent Robert N.C. Nix Sr. in the Democratic primary. Mr. Gray, who had once worked in Mr. Nix's office, lost by fewer than 400 votes. Two years later, after accusing Mr. Nix of losing touch with his district, he won easily.

Mr. Gray was frustrated in his first years in Congress, giving up his Budget Committee seat in 1981 after complaining that Democrats were more interested in making deals with Republicans than in spending money on social services. "It was clear that the Democratic leadership felt they did not want or need the liberal vote," he said in an interview with Newsday in 1985.

But he returned to the committee in 1983 and eventually became known as a skilled negotiator and consensus-builder.

When he became budget chairman, in 1985, some lawmakers asked whether a black representative from a district that was 80 percent black could see beyond the needs of his constituents.

"If I do an effective job as chairman," he said then, "I will break down a barrier and demonstrate that race is not an obstacle to heading a major financial committee or winning a leadership post."

William Herbert Gray III was born in Baton Rouge, La., on Aug. 20, 1941. He spent part of his childhood in Florida, where his father was president of Florida Normal and Industrial College, in St. Augustine, and later Florida A&M College, now university, in Tallahassee.

The congressman received his bachelor's degree from Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., and divinity degrees from Drew Theological Seminary and Princeton Theological Seminary. He worked as a minister at Union Baptist Church in Montclair, N.J., for much of the 1960s while teaching at several colleges.

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