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Biographical Details of Leadership
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BOND: Bill Gray, thank you very much for doing this. We appreciate your taking the time. Part of this is a look back at the Brown decision. You were thirteen years old when the court decided in '54 that separate schools were illegal. Do you remember any discussion in your household, in your family about that?
GRAY: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you got to remember I came out of a family of educators. My father had been president of two black colleges. My mother had been a dean of a black college. Her mother had been a schoolteacher in Louisiana, and her father had been a professor at a black college. So I mean, when that decision was rendered, I mean, there was much discussion at our home for weeks about the importance of it, and the implications.
BOND: Do you remember feeling optimistic about it, "This is great, things are going to change right away," or anything like that?
GRAY: I remember being jubilant. I remember, you know, the feeling that, "Hey, a great thing has happened," you know, "We're on the way to the Promised Land -- inevitably, things are moving in the right direction." There was a strong feeling that everything was possible now. There were just new possibilities for folk of color in this country, and for black folk. I mean, it was -- I picked that up at thirteen, even though I didn't know what they were talking about sometimes. But the feeling definitely in Philadelphia was that, "Hey, there are new possibilities, the horizon is unlimited, the Promised Land is just around the corner."
BOND: And when did you, or do you remember, feeling that things weren't going to happen quite that way, that it wasn't quite the optimistic change you had hoped for?
GRAY: Well, I think I began to sense, and my family began to sense, that as we went on through the rest of that decade, that things didn't change. Schools didn't begin to open up immediately, especially in higher education. We still were confronted with the problems of registering and voting. We were still confronted with the problems of public accommodations. And so, I guess three or four years after that it became clear that there was going to have to be a concentrated struggle to implement what Brown vs. the Board of Education had said, and that we had to now struggle to make it a reality in the rest of American life on each and every battlefield - in politics, in economics, in public accommodations.
BOND: Now, in 1949, after having lived in Louisiana and Florida, the family moves to Philadelphia. You go from the South to the North. Do you remember that as a big change?
GRAY: Oh, absolutely. It was a big change. I mean, I grew up in the South, a segregated South, American apartheid, where the concept of going to a restaurant, going into a hotel, riding anywhere on a public accommodation was just something that you never thought about. I mean, you just didn't do it. You rode in the back of the bus, and when the white folks got on, you got up and moved to the back, and if enough of them got on, you got up and gave them your seat. I remember that as a kid. I also remember that you didn't go to restaurants. I remember drinking at the colored water fountain and thinking like, you know, "Why am I drinking here? The water looks the same here as it does over there." That was a major change, going from the deep South to Philadelphia. Now it wasn't that much for my parents, because my father was from Philadelphia, and my mother had lived in Philadelphia for a while, while my father was working on his Ph.D. and she was getting her master's degree. It was a big change, though, for me, and it was a big change for my sister. Now I can ride anywhere I want on the public conveyances, the trolley cars, I can go into just about any restaurant I wanted to, as long as I had the money. Yeah. I mean, it was a big change.
BOND: And was it an exciting change? I mean, you said, "This is great, the old life is bad, this is good." Was it that much evident to you?
GRAY: It was exciting for a lot of reasons. I was moving away from the South; I was in a big city, you know. Cities are full of energy, full of things to do, places to go and things to see. And so, just moving from Tallahassee, Florida, Baton Rogue, Louisiana, to this great big city with skyscrapers, with trolley cars, with busses, with theaters, and not just one, but I mean, a bunch you could choose from. That was fascinating. I mean, that was really exciting. So I was excited about just going to a city. That was number one excitement. Number two, I was also excited about the new opportunities that I had, as a person, that I did not have in the South because I was black.
BOND: Now, you go to Simon Gratz High School, in Philly, and I'm guessing it was integrated, black and white kids there.
BOND: It's almost all black now.
GRAY: It was – Simon Gratz High School was predominantly black, even when I went there, I would probably say somewhere in the neighborhood of 70-plus percent. The middle school – they called it junior high school that I went to – was predominantly white. It was J. Cooke. And then the elementary school that I went to was predominantly black. So I went to an elementary school that was predominantly black. It was a neighborhood school, three blocks from my house. And of course in the 1950s, you've got to remember there was segregation in the North. It was called geographic segregation, where black folks all lived in the ghetto, as it was called, you know – the neighborhood. It didn't matter about your income. So it was later that I began to understand these differences and say, "Hey, some of the things that we left in the South exist here." And, in fact, in the South, you didn't have the spatial segregation. In fact, in the South, you often have white folk and black folk living side by side. It's just the black folk couldn't vote, they couldn't hold certain jobs. Whereas in the North, you had spatial segregation. The black folks lived in North Philly, and the white folks lived in the East Mount Airy area, Germantown, and black folks couldn't buy a house there. So, I became aware of that, and by the time I went to high school, it was predominantly a black high school.
BOND: Now in the earlier school where it's predominantly white, was this a new experience, or a shocking experience? How'd that – going to school with white kids – what was that?
GRAY: Well, it was different. I had never done it before in my life, and so, here I am in the seventh grade, and for the first time, I'm sitting in a room filled primarily with white students, and white teachers. It was different. I got to know my white colleagues, the various cultures that they came from, you know, the Italians, the Jewish students, the Polish students, and it was a learning experience, and I think I adapted well. I did all right.
BOND: Now, obviously your parents had an enormous influence on your life because of your father's profession, both as an educator and as a minister and his father before him, and your mother's experiences as an educator, and her family background coming from educators – but aside from them, and I know they must have been an enormous influence, what other adult figures influenced your early life?
GRAY: Oh my goodness, the list is so long. I mean, you know, if I go back and describe living on a college campus, Florida Memorial College while I was in St. Augustine, Florida; Florida A&M College while I was in Tallahassee. I mean, I saw role models every day. I saw African Americans who had Ph.D's, master's degrees, very learned people who were discussing concepts, theories, and things that just gave me a great kind of exposure. I saw students, you know, struggling to survive in a college. I saw great athletes. You've got to remember that when I was at Florida A&M, all the great athletes in black America, went to black colleges. They didn't play at Florida State University or University of Florida or the University of Alabama. When the pro teams came looking for star athletes, they came to black colleges, and drafted them from the football team. I mean, I saw these people, and were they people who were role models? Absolutely. Coaches – Coach Gaither, I remember, was a role model. I remember some of the professors, who I just admired and thought so much about. And then when I came to Philadelphia, a new set of role models. School teachers – Sam Bass, who is one of my elementary school teachers, who is just a great role model for me. And then, John Glenn, who was one of my middle school teachers at Cooke Junior High School and was my track coach and cross-country coach. And throughout life, I had the opportunity to run into people who were just wonderful examples of human accomplishment, excellence, and from all walks of life.
BOND: And then you go from Gratz to Franklin and Marshall, and get a BA there, and while you're there, you serve as an intern for a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania congressman, Robert Nix, who was just a fixture in black politics then. What was that experience like?
GRAY: Well, Franklin Marshall, it was five black students out of about 1,200 white students. And it was all male. Now it's co-ed. And it was a great school, great education. We had our problems, though, in terms of, you know, racial attitudes. It was a school where all the social life was in the fraternities and none of the fraternities would pledge blacks, except one. And so therefore, we who were black had no social life, other than going to the black community in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I ran up against professors who demonstrated prejudice and bigotry toward me, and you learn to live with that and adjust and deal with it. And I was a history major, and decided in my senior year that I was going to become a minister. And I think one of the – some of the guiding figures for me at that time in my life were – well, let's see, one of them was a coach, a guy named Woody Sponaugle, who was the basketball coach. And he and I had a difficult time for a while, because I was a city basketball player, you know, behind the back, between the legs, all that kind of stuff, and you know, he – that was not his kind of game. So, we kind of had a conflict, and he wanted fundamentals, and I had professors like Norm Zacour in the history department. And one professor in particular, Gene Wise [Sidney Wise], who I never took a course from, but I greatly admired him. And one day after a basketball game and he came up to me and said, "You know, you're not a government major in my department. But you know, I'd like you to consider becoming an intern down in Washington." And I said, "Why?" And he said, "Because I think you have leadership capabilities, you know, you're the leader of the basketball team." I was the point guard who called all the plays. So I said "Okay," and he essentially lined up the internship, and the internship was between my senior year and my going to graduate school, which was to Drew Theological Seminary to start my work on a master of divinity degree.
BOND: You graduate from college, you have this internship, and you go to Drew Theological Seminary, which means, of course, that you've made a decision. You're going to be a minister.
BOND: Now you've got to think that your father's influence had a lot to do with this, and his father before him. Any other influences that pointed you in that direction?
GRAY: No, as a matter of fact, I resisted and rebelled against ministry. I mean, I fought it very, very hard. I was not going to be a minister like my father or my grandfather.
BOND: Why not?
GRAY: I just – I was a pastor's kid. I was a terrible PK. I mean, I raised Cain, I did everything possible, you know, that a PK could do to embarrass his father and parents. I mean, I was – I did all those kind of things. But I just – what I had done was, I had taken all of my elective and required courses in my first three years. I had even gone to summer school. So I could take some courses that I didn't do too well in, some of my science courses. Someone taught me the trick of you take those courses in the summer school. And I did that, because I couldn't make up my mind what I wanted to do with my life.
BOND: What were the attractions? What were the other options?
GRAY: And what I was looking at medicine, be a doctor, be a dentist, be a lawyer. Those were the things that I was really thinking about. I mean, because those were the traditional things in the black community. You've got to remember, in the '50s, in the early 1960s, black folk didn't think about becoming engineers. They didn't think about becoming artists, journalists. There were basically only about four or five "recognized professions" for the black community, you know, teaching, law, preaching, ministry, or funeral director. I mean, that was it. I mean, you know, good paying, prestige, that was it. And I was sort of traditional, but I didn't want to be a preacher. I was rebelling against the church. I remember as soon as I got to Franklin and Marshall, the first thing I did is say, "I don't have to go to church on Sunday morning anymore." And, of course about a year later, I found out that, "Hey, I better go down here and pray before these finals, because they are really kicking me back." But even then I still resisted it. And so, I had all electives my senior year. I could have taken all the courses that would have qualified me for pre-med, dental school, law school, or whatever. And finally, it was not until the summer between my junior and senior year that I made the decision that, "Hey, you know, you're really fighting? You're fighting that which you really want to do, and you really admire the most."
GRAY: And there were a lot of people who inspired me. I think of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was a frequent visitor to our house. Our families had been friends for three generations. My father knew his father, and in the old custom of the black community, when Martin came to Crozer [Theological Seminary] in Chester, Pennsylvania, which is ten miles down the road from Philadelphia, you know, you always say, now here's a list of all the family friends. If you get in trouble, you need a good meal, you go see them. And so, I remember Martin Luther King, Jr., coming to our house to have meals on the weekends.
BOND: What did you make of him then?
GRAY: He was a bright, young preacher, and –
BOND: No expectation that he would become the Martin Luther King we know today.
GRAY: No. He was just a bright young divinity student. And of course, I was younger, and he would come by sometimes and have meals, and sometimes he would preach at the church as a student minister. His father would come up and his mother, you know, Daddy King and Big Mama, as we called them. And they'd spend the night right there in our home, and he'd come in from seminary, and they'd all come to church, and his father would be preaching. And so, I had those kinds of role models in my life, in ministry, you know, people who I saw. Luther Cunningham, a Philadelphia preacher, who was a Civil Service Commissioner. Dr. [M.] Shepard, who was pastor of the Mount Olivet Church but who had been Recorder of Deeds in Washington and a city councilman. Adam Clayton Powell. Folks who had ministries that were broader. And Leon Sullivan, who was there in Philadelphia, who started OIC [Opportunities Industrialization Centers]. So I grew up around a group of ministers who taught me that ministry was not just simply something you do on Sunday morning. It's something you do in the streets, it's something you do about housing, it's something that you do about economic justice. And so, they along with my father – and my father was a Civil Service commissioner in Philadelphia as well, and very much involved in politics – taught me about what I call the whole ministry. And finally, my senior year, I decided, "Stop fighting it. That's really what you want to be. That's really what you ought to be, and that's what God called you to be." And so, I stopped fighting it. And that's how I ended up in the seminary.
BOND: And so, while you were at Drew, you were assistant pastor at Union Baptist, in Montclair, New Jersey, and then you become the senior minister there, and Martin King presides over the installation service.
GRAY: Well, yes, Martin Luther King provided over the installation service, and so did Daddy King. Daddy King spoke in the morning at the worship at the church, and then in the afternoon, we had to have the high school, because it was a church that only could seat five hundred people, and of course, everybody in north Jersey wanted to come, so we went to the high school for 3,000 people, and Martin Luther King, Jr., was the guest speaker there. But we had present that afternoon, Martin, Jr., Coretta, Big Mama and Daddy King – the whole King family was there. And I started out – my first year in seminary, I did a student ministry with my father, then I went to a big, prestigious white Baptist Church called First Baptist Church. It was the church that Harry Emerson Fosdick built, and was his first significant ministry. And it was from there that Rockefeller got him to come to New York and built Riverside for him.
And I did a year there, and then I met the minister of Union Baptist Church, who invited me to come over and preach. Because the first thing he said, "What are you doing here, boy?" You know, "What's a black guy doing as a student minister of this very elite, white Baptist church?" And I said, "Well, I wanted to get a different kind of experience," and it was a wonderful experience. And they invited me over to preach. I preached, and afterwards he said, I didn't tell you this, but I'm getting ready to retire, and the deacons asked me to ask you, would you be interested? And I was flattered. I said, "You've got to be kidding." And the bottom line is that, it worked out, I did a co-ministry with him for one year, and the day I got my seminary degree, I became pastor of the Union Baptist Church, and Martin Luther King came and was there for my installation.
BOND: And while you're there at this church, you began this – you get involved in housing issues in the community, acting out the kind of civic engagement that you mentioned a moment ago, and these other ministers that you had seen, and that your father exemplified too. That – you thought that was a part of the job, the task, of being a minister?
GRAY: Well, every time I saw an example of a black minister who was really, really relevant, it was not just preaching. It was not just visiting the sick. It wasn't simply baptizing and those things. It was also helping the community with the basic issues, you know, good news. What's good news to the poor? A job, you know. What's good news to the homeless? An apartment, or a house to live in. And so yeah, we immediately immersed ourselves in that kind of a ministry. We became the focal point for the formation of a development corporation, the Union Development Corporation, that took on the city's relocation housing. The city of Montclair was doing its first urban renewal project, and a bunch of ministers, we got together and said, "We're not going to let it be urban removal." Because where they were going to put it is, of course, where? In the middle of the low-income, black community, and they didn't have a housing authority. And so, we said, "We'd like to be the housing authority and insist upon good, safe, decent housing," and built a housing project there.
BOND: And then by 1970, you're at Princeton Theological Seminary, and you get involved in a lawsuit about housing discrimination. Tell me about that real quickly.
GRAY: Well, I went to Princeton, along with my good friend, Joe Roberts, who at that time was at the Elmwood Presbyterian Church, and we became fast friends. A little bit later, when he became an executive with the Southern Presbyterian Church, I introduced him to Daddy King and lo and behold, he's now the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. We would go down to Princeton, got my master's degree. And while a minister – I was single at Union Baptist Church, I was looking for housing. And I went to this very fancy garden apartment, and saw an apartment I liked, and wanted to rent. And they wouldn't rent it to me. They said, "No, it's no longer available." I knew immediately that that was a lie. You know, black folks understand discrimination. You can see it, smell it, a mile off. And I got really angry, and I called someone, and I'm trying to remember who it was. I think it might have been the guy who was a city councilman and who was a member of my church, who later became the mayor. And he called a couple people, and they said, "Bill, you sure?" And I said, "I'm absolutely sure." And they said, "You know, we ought to do something about this."
And so, we called a friend, a young Jewish lawyer, and asked his advice, and he said, "You know, that's outrageous." He said, "Let me try something. I'll be right back." He and his wife went to the same apartment immediately, asked for the apartment, was shown exactly the apartment I was shown. And they called back and said, "You were discriminated against." And his name was Sam Friedman, and he said, "I want to represent you." And I filed a lawsuit. I didn't take it through the Civil Rights Commission of the state or the county. I filed a unique lawsuit. It was the first time, I believe, in the history of America, anybody filed a lawsuit for damages because of damage done to the person – psychological damage, the impact of discrimination. So, I didn't file just for the apartment. I filed for money. When you discriminate, you pay the victim if you're guilty. And that was a radical concept at that time. And we took it all the way to the courts of New Jersey and won. And the judge said, "You don't look too psychologically damaged, so the damages were very small, but the precedent, it was a case called Gray v. Serruto [Builders Inc.] , and it basically established that, if you discriminate, you are liable for cash damages.
BOND: And then in 1971, you marry Andrea Dash, starting a family for the first time. And then the next year, you become pastor of the church your father had pastored. And shortly after that – four years after that – you run for Congress against the man for whom you had been an intern, Congressman Nix. What led to that decision? Why did you challenge him?
GRAY: Well, basically what happened was, after I got married, and I was a college professor, pastor of this very significant church. I thought I had achieved and gotten to exactly where I wanted to be in this beautiful pachysandra bedroom community, Montclair, New Jersey – you know, it was the ideal life. My father died rather suddenly, had a heart attack and passed away, and the church asked me to come back. My first answer was no. I said, "No, I really – no, I don't really want to be a candidate," because I figured it would be very difficult to pastor a church where everybody remembered you as a kid. I mean, there were people in that church who literally had at one time held me in their arms.
BOND: But hadn't your father done that too?
GRAY: Yeah. And – but I just thought it was just too difficult, you know, to go pastor a church where you grew up in, I mean – and he had been away from the church for, you know, a decade or two. I really hadn't been away. And these people still saw me as little Billy, you know, and that's what they used to call me. And so I had real misgivings, but finally they voted twice. They had one election, and then they had another. And both times they said, "We want you," and I decided to come back. And when I got back, the church was already involved in what I call that whole ministry, and I became involved in it, and like most black Baptist preachers, or black ministers period, whether you're AME or Baptist or whatever, you're involved in the community, you're involved in the political issues, you're involved in the social issues, whether you like it or not. People expect you to speak out.
They expect you to exert leadership, because historically black preachers are the independent force of leadership in the black community. They're paid by the black community, they're nurtured by the black community, and generally, they're not beholden to anyone else. You can't threaten them with the loss of job. And so I got involved in doing the same thing that ministers have done throughout history in the black community. I got to talking about, you know, various issues, economic issues, political system. And at that time, there was a mayor named Frank Rizzo, who ran the Philadelphia political machine. And that machine was not responsive to the needs of the African-American community, and there were those in the community who were trying to bring about change. I aligned myself with them. And sometime I think I was shooting off my mouth about what was wrong, and somebody said, "Well, why don't you do something about it? Run for public office." And I said, "Okay, I will." And they said, "Run for Congress."
GRAY: And so, I got involved in doing the same thing that ministers have done throughout history in the black community. I got to talking about various issues, economic issues, the political system. And at that time, there was a mayor named Frank Rizzo, who ran the Philadelphia political machine. And that machine was not responsive to the needs of the African American community, and there were those in the community who were trying to bring about change. I aligned myself with them. And sometime I think I was shooting off my mouth about what was wrong, and somebody said, "Well, why don't you do something about it? Run for public office." And I said, "Okay, I will." And they said, "Run for Congress." Well, now, you've got to understand Philadelphia politics. In Philadelphia you don't run for public office unless you're given permission to. You don't enter a primary – there are no such things as open primaries in the '50s and the '60s and the '70s in Philadelphia politics. You only run when the party says, "Okay, you're our guy. You can run. Nobody else is going to run against you."
BOND: And Nix was their guy.
GRAY: And Bob Nix was their guy, had been their guy. And was Rizzo's guy.
BOND: What did you think about Nix? As I say, Nix was a power in Congress, and a power in Pennsylvania politics. What did you think about him?
GRAY: Well, I had great respect for Mr. Nix. Congressman Nix, wonderful guy. When I worked in his office, he was pretty active. Even though he had gone to Congress in a very late stage in life, in terms of age. And of course, back in those days, Congress worked on a seniority system. So you could go to Congress and sit for twenty years before you became even a subcommittee chairman. And I think Bob Nix was somewhere in the neighborhood of his late fifties when he got elected. And when I worked with him, he was in his mid-sixties. He was a good, strong person. I enjoyed my experience while I was there.
BOND: Well, he's a reliable Democrat, part of the machine in Philadelphia.
GRAY: He was the first black Congressman from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, sort of like Oscar De Priest was, you know, from Chicago. And the first usually are selected by the machine. And most of the independent movement in politics in Philadelphia had gotten nowhere in elected office. There were only two black elected officials who had ever been elected independently in the history of Philadelphia politics. A guy named Hardy Williams, who at that time had become a state rep, was a state senator. He had run for mayor, got crushed, okay. Another guy named Dave Richardson. Dave had been a former gang leader, a brother from the streets, but a very principled guy, a guy with great leadership skills. And he ran and became a state rep. And so, here I was and – going to run, and they said, "No. You run for the big seat." Congress, I mean, one third of the city. Most people laughed, you know, and said, "You've got to be joking. Somebody's going to run for Congress?" I mean, you don't even run for state representative without the backing of a party.
BOND: But didn't people also say, "Listen, you're challenging this icon, this figure. You're disrupting unity among black people"? I mean, there must have been millions of arguments why you shouldn't do this.
GRAY: Well, unfortunately by that time, Congressman Nix had really reached a senior status, age-wise, and just had not had the visibility, the involvement in the community. And so, I didn't get that. That's when I began to realize that, maybe I ought to run. I did not get this uproar from "the black community" – "How dare you run against a twenty year incumbent?" I didn't. I got it nationally, from leadership in the black community, all over the nation – called up, wrote me letters. But most of it did not occur in Philadelphia. What I did get in Philadelphia was from the party people, the blacks who were a part of the Democratic Party. "How dare you – ?" But grass roots people? No, not at all. So, I basically said, "Okay, this is an opportunity to bring out some issues, take on the Democrat machine, be a part of a reform movement."
I didn't have any idea that I could win. In fact, everybody told me, "You're not going to win. All you're going to do is maybe come close, and Mr. Nix, when he retires, you might have a shot." And I think I had $50,000 – was the campaign budget. I didn't have it, that was going to be the budget, and we didn't know how we were going to raise it. I think we ended up raising maybe about $35, $40 thousand. And I was running against – I announced two months before the election, started running, you know, out on the street corners, pressing hands, coffee klatches, the whole bit. And we had no idea how we were doing. We had no, you know, paid staff. And then two weeks before the election, a news media called us up and said, according to our polling, it's a dead heat. And we said, "Oh well, we're not surprised."
We didn't even have money to do polling. And you know, we hung up the phone and dashed around the room – "Wow, this is better than anybody ever expected!" And sure enough, on election night, several of the national news media, as well as local news media, announced that I was the winner, and that I had won, based on voter analysis of exit polls. But then, when the votes were transferred downtown, suddenly, around eleven, twelve o'clock, I was losing. And I ended up behind by about twelve, fourteen hundred votes the next morning. We couldn't do a recount, because in Pennsylvania to do a recount, you have to put up a certain amount of money for each of the machines you want to open. And if they find a change, you get your money back. So it would have cost us something like $20 to $30 thousand to do a recount. I had no money, so we went out and raised a little bit of money. We did a partial recount in areas that we had some questions, and the vote margin ended up being 339 votes. And we just didn't have any more money.
BOND: Did you believe that there was some machinations that took that election away from you, that stole that election from you?
GRAY: Well, let's put it this way. Most people in this city thought I had won the election. I didn't feel so badly about it. We had run a good race, and in a real sense, I was hoping that I would run well, I would use it to articulate some issues, and apparently, they resonated. And I was surprised about how well I did. And in a real way, I was relieved, because I did not want to see Mr. Nix defeated, even though I thought he ought to be challenged. But we were really challenging something more than Bob Nix, or his record. We were challenging the concept of, "Can somebody downtown, sitting in a back room with ten or fifteen people, choose the leadership for the black community, and then bar everybody else?" That was what the black independent political movement was about in Philadelphia. And I immediately decided afterwards to plan for the next race.
BOND: And two years later you came back and you beat him. You got 58 percent of the vote.
GRAY: I came back and won two-to-one.
BOND: What happened in the two years intervening? What made the difference?
GRAY: We raised more money, we covered our polls to make sure that the count was very, very accurate. And I think people who didn't think I had a chance suddenly said, "Hey, I'm going to come out and vote for this guy." And you know, we sharpened the message, and the message was really a message about change – having, you know, strong, alert leadership that was going to be not just a voter by machine in Washington, but a leader, but also a leader back home, for the kind of progressive, political policies and inclusion that we didn't have in the Democratic Party, or anywhere in the city, for that matter. And so, my election in the primary was tantamount to victory, because in my old district if you won the Democratic primary, that's it, you can go home, you're it. And we spent the next months campaigning against the charter change that Frank Rizzo was seeking, and our campaign led that movement, and we ran up the largest majorities against changing the charter in my congressional district, which made it possible for us to basically change the political environment of Philadelphia.
BOND: Now, almost immediately after, commentators afterward, commentators like the New York Times are calling you a new power broker in Philadelphia. Was that election that significant? Had it shifted power –
GRAY: Oh, absolutely.
BOND: – and changed the landscape that quickly?
GRAY: Absolutely. I mean, before then, those blacks who were in public office were there primarily because they had been selected by white political leaders. Now for the first time, other than Dave Richardson, Hardy Williams, and a young man who ran with me the first time – he won a state rep position, John White – you now have most of the black leadership under the elected political office of a black who got there without owing the party anything – money, organization, endorsement. And we immediately saw as our mission, the changing of Philadelphia politics. And so immediately we went to work, established a new city council, formed a coalition with Hispanics and with whites, the progressive vote in the white community. And the very next year, we elected an entire new city council, that led to the first black president of the city council, Joe Coleman. And we had a black candidate who ran for mayor, Charlie Bowser, who lost to a white candidate named Bill Green, but Bill Green was a reformist himself.
BOND: He was former Congressman. And so, even though Bill Green won the Democratic primary, he understood the reform movement, he saw the impact – what we had done in winning the city council seats – so he became a leader in the empowerment of the African American community, appointing, as a part of the commitment that was given for support from people like myself, the appointment of a first black city manager, whose name was W. Wilson Goode.
BOND: Goode himself later becomes mayor.
GRAY: Who also was my field organizer.
GRAY: And did the fieldwork for my first election, and who later became the first black mayor. And we did – in fact, I used to get criticized by a lot of people in the Democratic Party, and in the Philadelphia leadership, you know, "Are you the Congressman in Washington?" or "Are you the Congressman in Philadelphia?" because every election I would get involved in, in terms of selection of judges, calling for equity for women, for qualified judges, for African Americans, for Hispanics. In fact, we put together the first ticket that got Hispanics on the city council as well as into judgeships. And so – and the reason for that is you control or have influence over a large portion of the city, and if you keep your organization together, which we did, you don't care what the party does. You turn out 2,000 workers on election day, who are independent, who are part of this movement for reform, and who say, "No. No more judges who are just the friend of Senator so and so. But are they qualified? Have they been rated? And by the way, are there women? Are there minorities? And if there's not, no more of the old deals. You give us one, when there are twenty seats up. And oh, by the way, only ten of them are going to get elected, and the black one just happens to be number eleven in the vote tally?" No, no. From that day forward, with the independent movement, we were able to say, "No, this is – we want our share, and not only our share, but we also want all of them to be good. Don't expect us to support any judges who can't qualify."
BOND: Now, shift from the Philadelphia political scene to Congress, almost immediately you get appointed to the Steering and Policy Committee. I mean, that doesn't happen with a freshman. How'd that happen?
GRAY: Well, interesting story. Remember I told you I won the primary. Once you win the primary, you are going to be the Congressman, you know, unless you drop dead or something, because the district was 80 percent Democratic, 10 percent Republican, 10 percent independent. And what I did was immediately after winning the primary, I went to Washington. I came down to Washington, and went and met Tip O'Neill, went and met every one of the leaders of the House of Representatives on the Democratic side, every chairman I met, every subcommittee chairman, I went and introduced myself to them. And then one of the Philadelphia Congress persons, who later had some problems, a guy named Ray Lederer, took a liking to me. He was the old style from the old political machine of Philadelphia. And Ray just took a liking to me. And it was because, I guess, because my church was actually in his district. But he didn't know me.
BOND: So, excuse me, so your church is not in your Congressional district?
GRAY: No. It was actually two blocks out. But I mean, my church is a city church. People come from all over the city to the church. It's not a neighborhood church.
BOND: Okay. I don't want to interrupt the flow.
GRAY: Yeah. And so, Ray Lederer for some reason just took a liking to me. And so, I was talking to him about committee assignments, and you know, "What should I be doing?" – which is question I ask a lot of people. But a lot of them gave me a stock answer. Ray said, "Bill," he said, "there's something that you ought to try to do." He said, "The most powerful, important position in the freshman class in Congress is the Steering and Policy rep." He said, "That's what you ought to try and get." And I said, "Well, why?" And he says, "Because that person, for the next two years, will work with the leadership in selecting who gets on what committees. That's power. And secondly, you will be getting well known by the leadership, all the committee chairmen, all the people – they've got to come and ask for your vote, to get on Ways and Means, to get on Appropriations, to get on Interstate Commerce. And they've got to trade votes with you. And it's an opportunity that you can use to, you know, develop a real reputation here in this institution."
So, I had been thinking about president of the freshman class. And he said, "No, that's just a figurehead. Nobody cares about that. It's Steering and Policy. It meets once a week. It's chaired by the Speaker, and the Majority Leader, and the Majority Whip." And so, I started planning a campaign that summer, and the campaign was, I'm going to get known to every freshman who is coming in. So I wrote every freshman an immediate letter congratulating all the ones who won the Democratic primary. You know, some of them called me up and asked for help in various ways. You know, "Would you come out to my district? Would you help me with this person? Do you know Rev. Bond here in Atlanta, Georgia? Would you ask him to have a meeting maybe consider supporting me?" And sure, I'd call up Reverend Julian Bond, and, "Hey, how are you, Julian? You know so and so who is running for Congress? Would you meet with him? He just wants to talk to you about his candidacy." And so, when November came, and everybody got elected, the entire freshman class, all of them knew me, even though we hadn't met. So when we came to freshman orientation, the guy who was probably known better than anybody else was Bill Gray.
BOND: Now, maybe you don't know the answer, but other people could have done this. They probably wouldn't have had your contacts in the black clerical community around the country, but other people could have done this, could have campaigned for this. Why were you successful at it?
GRAY: Well, number one, I started in the summer. I started before getting elected. Most of the other Democrats were worried about a general election. I didn't have to worry about a general election. So I spent my time between the primary and general election, doing what? Reform politics in Philadelphia, fighting the charter change, and putting Rizzo out, and two, campaigning for what I wanted in the Congress that I wasn't going to be sworn into until January. So, when we got to freshman orientation, people who suddenly wanted to be Steering and Policy, were way behind the curve. I'll tell you who they were. There was a woman named Geraldine Ferraro. There was a guy named Tony Coelho, who had been an AA on Capitol Hill for a number of years, and knew his way around. There was a guy named Peter Peyser from New York, and there was a guy named Buddy Leach, from Louisiana. All of them had tremendous political experience. We ended up having an election on, I think, the next to the last day of freshman orientation. And. of course, my class was the biggest incoming class of freshman blacks – Julian Dixon, Mel Evans, Benny Stewart, and of course, my late and beloved friend Mickey Leland from Texas. And we were trying to figure out, they said, "Bill, you're going to do what?" "Hey, I'm running for Steering and Policy, man." They said, "You've got to be crazy. How are you going to do that?" And we ended up organizing and getting a little committee together, and whenever somebody said, "Yes," I'd say, "Would you go talk to so and so?"
BOND: Not everybody can do this, this kind of putting together a campaign, particularly in a small body like that. Where did you learn how to do this? How did you learn how to do this?
GRAY: If you can pastor a black Baptist Church, maneuvering in the Congress is easy. It's nothing compared to the choir, the usher board, the deacon board. And I always say that. And people always say, "How do you – ? What do you – ?" You run a volunteer organization, and you run it on persuasion. You run it on convincing people to do things. And in politics, it's the same thing. You've got to convince people to vote for you. You've got to convince even leaders, people who are your equal, why you ought to be elected to Steering and Policy.
BOND: So this is a transference of skills learned in your ministerial function, to this function.
BOND: And even though the settings are different, and the constituencies are different, it's the same skill.
GRAY: I think so. I think it's the same skill set.
BOND: But it also gives you an opportunity to reach out to white members of Congress, who are the overwhelming majority, in ways that might not have come to your black colleagues.
GRAY: I think I had some experiences that made it different for me. One, I came from a very strong family background where I was taught, even when I was living in the South and had to ride in the back of the bus, and had to drink from the colored water fountain, and couldn't go to, you know, a white school, that I was as good, if not better than they were. And I had that drummed into me. I mean, there was no psychological damage that often happens. I mean, I had parents and grandparents who did that. And then, growing up in the atmosphere I did, which is an upper middle-class family, I had examples of black excellence, from preachers, to teachers, to doctors, to lawyers. I mean, on the block I grow up in, I had Hobson Reynolds across the street who was head of the Elks. Two doors down was Cecil B. Moore, who later became a firebrand city councilman, led the NAACP in Philadelphia. Two doors the other way was Frederick Massiah, the great black architect from the West Indies, who had done so much in Philadelphia, and most people never knew that he was black. So I mean – around the corner was Raymond Pace Alexander and Sadie Alexander. Sadie Alexander was the first woman in America to get a Ph.D. in economics. Not black woman, first woman. I mean, these were the kind of examples I had.
Now on the same block you had welfare recipients, you had truck drivers, you know, because we didn't have that ability to move into "homogenous" neighborhoods, because of what I call the discrimination of the North, you know, all the black folk lived in Harlem, okay. They all lived in North Philly. So, I had that. And then secondly, I grew up in an environment that not only taught me that I was as good as anybody else, but you could do anything, and that you had to try, and if you didn't – but I also went to, at one point, a couple of institutions that were predominantly white, the middle school and the college. Where, yeah, I had some bad experiences. Sure, I had some scarring experiences. I could tell you all about them. But the fact of the matter is, I also came away stronger, and believing what my parents taught me.
So, when some of my black colleagues in the freshman class, we had a caucus like the night before, and they said, "Bill, you don't have the votes, man. You're going to get embarrassed." And I said, "No, I think I'm going to win. I think I can do it." And then the next morning we were to have another little caucus before the vote, and we had a breakfast meeting. I put on a breakfast for all the freshman, my little old last campaign thing. And as they were leaving, the campaign manager for one of the candidates, who was perceived at least by me to be the strongest candidate, his campaign manager – who is now a U.S. Senator, but was in my class – came over and said, "Bill, why don't you pull out, and maybe we can work a deal where you become the president of the class, and my guy become Steering and Policy." He said, "What do you think?" And I said, "No, I'm not going to do that." And he said, "Why not?" And I said, "Because you just told me I'm going to win."
BOND: And you did.
GRAY: And we left there, went to Rayburn, and had the vote, and it was the low person off. And I managed not to be the low person on each one of the ballots until finally it was myself and Buddy Leach from Louisiana. And I had developed a little technique – which now has become standard operating procedure, I'm told, in the House of Representatives – which was, you know, "Mr. Bond, if you can't vote for me because you're committed to Geraldine Ferraro, if Geraldine Ferraro is not in the race, could I have your second vote?" And so, every time one of the others dropped off – Geraldine Ferraro, Peter Peyser, Tony Coelho – I had commitments from their voters, that they'd vote for me. Of course, they never thought that possibility was going to ever occur. And so, in the final vote, I won overwhelming.
BOND: And they kept their word?
GRAY: And they kept their word, because if you don't keep your word, that's death in the political arena, as you know.
BOND: Let me take you back to something I passed by and didn't mean to, and that was your father's role in the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon election. He played a unique role in there. Do you remember being involved in that, in any kind of way?
GRAY: Well, I was rather young, and was away in school, but he was very involved. My father, like a lot of Southern blacks, in the '40s and '50s, had been a Republican, but by the '60s had become a Democrat. And he was very much involved in supporting John F. Kennedy, and one of his favorite pictures was a picture of himself and John F. Kennedy holding a baby in North Philadelphia, and both of them lifting him up. And what he had done was to join with some other ministers, to organize preachers all around the country, to get active, to be involved in voter turnout in key states, in the black community for Kennedy. And, of course, as you well know, when you look back at the Kennedy race – the race that he won, that the black vote was absolutely critical.
BOND: It was absolutely critical. Your father put together this pamphlet, which the campaign called the "Blue Bomb," because it was printed on blue paper. And hundreds of thousands of copies went out under the radar of every political observer. And there's a great story told by Sargent Shriver standing outside Jackson's church in Chicago, who is an opponent of Martin Luther King and hated Martin Luther King, and seeing these ballots go in, and saying, "I know we got it now. I know we got it now."
GRAY: Well, I do remember that, and it was very, very important, because what you did was for the first time, you saw a national organization of black religious leaders, done by religious leaders, and this little pamphlet talked about John F. Kennedy's positions on key issues that affect the black community – civil rights, had excerpts from his letter to Coretta King when Martin was in jail. And basically, it was given to preachers to put in their Sunday morning bulletins, or to distribute any way they wanted to. And it was very effective. And my father received a lot of thank you's from later-elected President Kennedy, including several invitations to White House dinners, which he enjoyed. But I do remember it, because the "Blue Bomb" – blue became Bill Gray's color for Congress.
BOND: Let's come back to your own service in the Congress. You also get on the Budget committee, which is unusual for a freshman, but later resign and go to the Appropriations committee. And you play an active role in the leadership of the black caucus, and opposing – it's Ronald Reagan as President now – and opposing his budget cutbacks. Now talk about that for a minute.
GRAY: Well, once I got on the Steering and Policy committee, that was the doorway. I mean, here I was sitting with the chairs, the chiefs, the big leaders of the Democratic Party, here was this little kid, preacher from North Philadelphia. They were even surprised. In fact, Tip O'Neill said to me, "How did you get elected to this?" Because he knew the people I ran against. All of them had prior political experience. And he said, "You know, I've got to watch this guy – " He even now said, "Watch this guy. He beat out all these experienced political pros to get this seat. We better watch him." And my job was to become an advocate for the freshmen in their class assignments. And I had promised in my campaign that I would always put their interests ahead of mine. And essentially, I was very successful. That year, we got three freshmen on the Ways and Means committee. That was the first time in the history of the Democratic caucus that any freshman got on Ways and Means. We got three on Appropriations. We got two on Interstate Commerce. I was cleaning up, you know, cutting deals left and right, until finally one New York congressman the next day said, "Hold it a minute. These freshmen are getting too much. What about these guys who've served here?" And the tide turned on me.
I had made that promise, and the committee assignment that I wanted, which was Banking and Urban Affairs, because I was from the District, and Pat Harris was then Secretary of HUD, and it was the last year of the Carter administration. I wanted that, but a guy named Mike Lowry, who had been a big supporter of mine for Steering and Policy, he lost his first choice, his second choice, and his third choice was that. And so basically, everybody in the room knew that that's what I wanted. So when it came around to nominating freshmen, I didn't nominate myself. And Tip O'Neill said, "Wait a minute, Bill. You said that you wanted that seat. You told me that you wanted that seat." And I said, "I'm sorry, Mr. Speaker, I can't nominate myself because I made a promise." And so I gave it up. And everybody went, "Huh?" And I didn't realize it at the time, but later I was told that sold the leadership on Bill Gray forever, that I would be willing to keep my word, even if it meant giving up what I wanted the most. Mike Lowry got the seat. I then was searching around for what was now going to be Bill Gray's first choice. That was my first choice. And so, Parren Mitchell, Lou Stokes, came to me and said "Bill, Parren is going off of Budget to take Small Business. We need somebody who can get on that committee, because it's a leadership committee. You get selected. And you're the only guy that we think can be elected to that seat. Would you take it?" So I took it. And so I went on Budget, and I went on Foreign Affairs, because at that point the black caucus leadership came to me and said that Mr. [Charles] Diggs was in some trouble, and that there would be no black member on Foreign Affairs. So that's how I got on Budget, that's how I got on Foreign Affairs.
BOND: But then later you resigned from Budget, and you to go Appropriations. How'd that happen?
GRAY: Because I found out that the two most powerful, three most powerful committees in the United States House of Representatives are Appropriations, Ways and Means, and Rules. And everything that I wanted to do, in terms of any issue, I could do from Appropriations. So I had to give up Budget and go to Appropriations, and I knew that I could go back to Budget. And so essentially, I served some time on the Budget committee, and then I went back to the Budget committee as a member of the Appropriation committee, because there were seats reserved for Budget, from Appropriations.
BOND: And in '85 you get to be chair of the Budget committee. I mean, that's a breakthrough that never happened before.
GRAY: Never happened before, and has not happened to this day, that a congressman who has only been there six years, gets elected chairman of the Budget committee. I mean, again, you know, I didn't know any better. I didn't know the political process. I hadn't been to the statehouse. I hadn't been to the city council house, and I didn't know you were supposed to sit around and wait. And so, I just took the position – "I want to do that, I think I can do that" – so I'm going to run for Budget committee chairman. And you know, people laughed. I remember on national television, when someone asked me "What [are you] going to do next?" And I said, "I'm going to run for Budget committee chairman," as if I said I was going to Disneyland. They laughed. The two reporters actually laughed. And they said, "Excuse us." And I ran and I won. And I became chairman of the Budget committee, right in the middle of the 1980s, as we were dealing with the budget priorities of Ronald Reagan.
BOND: And that had to be a fight. I mean, he's a popular President, people loved him. It had to be hard to fight against him.
BOND: He wanted to cut.
GRAY: Well, basically, he wanted to cut spending, but what people were not paying attention to – he wanted to cut domestic social spending. He was not cutting spending overall. He was increasing spending. He was increasing it in areas that he wanted to – defense, foreign affairs, agriculture, and some other areas. But he was cutting things like education. He wanted to eliminate Pell grants. He wanted to eliminate mostly the social payment side of the federal ledger. But he was increasing the other side. That's why we got the deficits. That's why the deficits grew in the first four years of Ronald Reagan's presidency to more than we'd ever had before in history, because he hadn't reduced spending. So I came as Budget committee chairman, and Tip O'Neill said, "Okay, Bill Gray, what's going to be our policy?" Because at that point, I was the spokesperson for the Democratic Party on macro-economic policy and on fiscal policy. I'm the spokesperson. Why? Because the Senate was controlled by the Republicans. Pete Domenici was chair of the Budget committee.
I told him, meaning Tip O'Neill, that I thought that we needed to change directions as a party. I said, "Obviously, people want to reduce spending. But," I said, "we need to change the debate, [it's] not about reducing spending or not to reduce spending, but what are the priorities? What's important to the country?" And essentially Tip O'Neill said, "Let's do that," and I changed it by getting up and saying, "He wants a $50 billion cut in spending, I'm going to get him a $50 billion cut in spending. I'll cut $50, if the Republicans cut $50, I'll cut $50. What I did was I cut something that he did not want cut. I cut defense. I cut foreign aid. I cut agriculture. And basically I started a policy, which I think is followed today bipartisanly, that the low-income means tested programs all receive at least inflation. And once that's done, everything else is subject to scrutiny and reduction.
And of course, most people don't realize that most of the payments in the federal government don't go to poor people – go to middle-class, upper middle-class people. So we basically argued a different set of cuts. So when the debate was enjoined in the spring of 1985, it wasn't about "the Democrats don't want to cut spending." It was about what you're cutting. And by that time, the American people said, "$600 coffee pots? Wait a minute, for the military? That's a little expensive." And we were saying, "You know, security, defense is important, but we don't need this kind of growth. This is more reasonable growth that will give the military what it needs. And by the way, over here in the domestic area, let's cut back on the funding of some of these roads that we pay for in the logging area, so that private corporations can drive their trucks and cut down the timber. Why are we paying for those roads? Why don't they pay for the roads, and not out of the taxpayer." We started raising questions like that, and once you begin that debate, suddenly you can see savings through reductions in spending, but they're much more reasonable. And they're supportable by the American people.
BOND: Thinking back over your life, which is far from over, and mentioning that accomplishment that was told you at the graduation ceremony, what do you think is your greatest accomplishment and your greatest contribution, to date, as an African American leader?
GRAY: Being minister of the Bright Hope Baptist Church and minister of the Union Baptist Church are still my greatest accomplishments.
BOND: And what have you not done, that you would like to do?
GRAY: I always had in mind that I wanted to be a commercial airline pilot, but I got these glasses when I was in the seventh grade, and back in those days, if you didn't have 20/20, you couldn't fly. So if there's one thing that I've always wanted to do – and my wife says, "Why don't you still go do it?" – is learn how to fly.
BOND: You should do it. I've done it.
GRAY: I may – that may be the next challenge, is go out and take lessons and learn how to fly.
BOND: Let me jump forward because of the time pressures we're under. After all these years of success and accomplishment and achievement in Congress, all of a sudden, seemingly out of the blue, you get this offer to be the head of the United Negro College Fund, and you leave. Tell us about that.
GRAY: Well, I know that that was a shocking choice to most Americans, that here's a guy who in twelve years goes from a freshman, to chairman of the Budget committee, to chairman of the Democratic caucus, and to Majority Whip, which is the one-way ticket to speakership. Tip O'Neill had been Majority Whip. Tom Foley had been Majority Whip. And you're on your way. And suddenly, I walk away from it, and say after twelve years, "I want to go do this." And I knew people would not understand, all people. There were all kind of speculations about why Bill Gray is doing this. You know, some people said, "He's in trouble, maybe an investigation going on." And I tried to say, "No, that's not the case at all." One newspaper wrote that I was going through a mid-life crisis on Capitol Hill, and I said, "Well, my wife's been saying that for a long time, I've been going through that kind of crisis."
I've always been a minister, and I've been about change. And if you're going to understand Bill Gray, understand first of all, no, he's not a politician. He is a Baptist minister. I continue to do that; that's the one job I have never left, in all of my days. While I was in Congress, I would go back and preach at Bright Hope. I'm still pastor of the Bright Hope Baptist Church. This year will be my twenty-ninth year as pastor of that church. Before that, I was eight years at the Union Baptist Church in Montclair, New Jersey. So if you want to understand me, understand my ministry first. And then an extension of that ministry is education. An extension of that ministry is social change and justice in the public policy area.
Because a lot of us who were a part of that school that came along in the '60s, once we brought down the walls of segregation, the fight turned to public policy. I mean, that's what the poor people's campaign was about. It was about voter registration, it was about – that's where the new arena was. I saw my role as an agent of change, to do it for a while, and then leave it. I never wanted to be President. I never wanted to be any other political office. I thought about the possibility of being Speaker, but I knew that that was going to be fifteen years. I was fifty years old. And I'm a black basketball player from the inner city of Philadelphia. We don't like to sit on the bench for fifteen years. We like to play. And I didn't think that that was going to be good for me. And since I had no other national aspirations – I didn't want to be mayor, I didn't want to be governor, senator, or President – this opportunity came along, and I said, "You know, it's an opportunity to go back to where you were 20 years ago in education, go back to some roots," and also at a critical time in the black community. Because at that point, I saw what I believed was an explosion of growth of black young people, who were going to complete high school, who were going to go to college. And the Dukes, the North Carolinas, the Harvards, the Haverfords, the Swathmores, the Franklin & Marshalls, are not going to take them all. They're going to take the cream of the crop. And these black colleges, which used to educate the cream of the crop, will now have a new mission. And they were going to need the resources to do that.
And the United Negro College Fund has been about the business of providing the resources for these colleges for fifty-six years. And you know something about fundraising, you've been pretty successful at it, as a Baptist preacher, as a politician, and what better way to close out your life, other than as a minister, than to go and raise money to make it possible for these schools to widen their doorways so that the thousands of young black kids who can't afford – and won't get the scholarship aid that they need – to go to the elite, prestigious schools can go to these very fine institutions that have been producing some of the best leadership the black community has seen, ever? And so, that's why I left.
I didn't expect people to understand it. I got all kinds of scathing letters, all kinds of innuendo. And I've learned in life you can't convince people about your choices. You do what's right for you, what your faith and what the Lord leads you to do. You've prayed about it. Your wife, family, you've talked about it. Go do it. And let the chips fall. And sure enough, people said, "Gee, nothing did happen. There was nothing – an investigation. Gee, it's good he made the decisions he did. He would have been the Minority Whip today." So, you know, that's what led me to do it, it's that I wanted to pursue a different path, which was to help these historically black colleges raise the money that was going to be needed for a new generation of leaders, for a new millennium.
BOND: Now you touched on this a moment ago, but think about your life as minister, as minister and Congressman, and now as head of the United Negro College Fund and minister. What's common in your vision, in all of these different roles? What's common that you strive for, in all of these roles?
GRAY: First of all, as a minister, a person who is committed to faith and trying to do the Lord's will as I see it, and based on a Biblical interpretation of a whole gospel, not just saving souls, but saving bodies, and saving bodies means taking on systems -- public policy systems, educational systems. Someone who also believes out of that faith that learning and education is important. That's why I've taught at five universities before I went to Congress. And someone who really believes that the struggle for human dignity is never over, and that no matter how many times we may celebrate the victory, there's always a little way further to go, some more mountain to climb. And I've just always been taught by my folk, parents, grandparents, that service is sort of the rent you pay for the space you occupy. And so, what I've tried to do is direct my life toward service based on faith and commitment and social justice.
BOND: Now you've been a leader all of your adult life, and people who study leadership say that it comes about in three different ways. Great people arise, and carry out leadership functions. Movements come along, and then out of those movements come leaders. And then, unpredictable events makes leaders appropriate for the particular time. Now, where do you fit here?
GRAY: I don't know. I'm flattered that anybody thinks I'm a great leader.
BOND: Many people think you're a great leader.
GRAY: I just think of myself as, you know, a servant, who is, you know, trying to do some things, trying to pay some rent. Gee, I don't know. I mean, as I look back on it, I'd probably say – yeah, I learned some early leadership lessons and skills from my childhood. My father, who was a black college president at twenty-five, who had a Ph.D. at age twenty-four, who had a master's degree at age twenty, and was a college professor at age twenty-one. Yeah, I learned something there. I learned it from my grandparents. I learned it from my mother. I learned it from a lot of role models who passed in front of me, and showed – demonstrated what excellence was about, and believing that you could do anything. Now I don't know which category that falls into. But I would also say I came along at a time. Even though I was not involved in the Civil Rights movement, in terms of marching in Selma, Birmingham, Montgomery –
BOND: But it was all around you.
GRAY: It was all around me, and in fact, I remember wanting to quit Franklin & Marshall to go down and join the Freedom Riders and so forth, and Martin Luther King said to me, "Don't." And I remember him saying, "We're going to need you for later. Finish your education. We've got enough folk." And he urged me to finish my education at Franklin & Marshall. And so, I think that historic period, the '60s, when there was so much struggle by people of good will, not just black people, but also white people of all faiths, denominations and colors, fighting to bring about a new and beloved community, also heavily influenced me, and gave me a real passion for some of the issues. And then, also maybe I was in the right place at the right time, you know, in Congress, to do some of the things I did. You know, being chairman of the Budget committee, when you ask people for support of your sanction bill in South Africa, it's a lot different, then when you're just an ordinary member saying, "I want support." They've got things that they care about that you control. And as one person on Tip O'Neill's staff once said to me, he said, "Bill, sanctions took off as a legislative agenda, because it was not being carried by an individual member – " Because there have been other members who cared deeply about apartheid – Curtis Collins, Ron Dillion. But this staff person said, "You're going to win this issue, because now it's being carried by someone who is chairman of a major committee, and nobody wants to offend the chairman."
BOND: But you got to be chairman because you had exercised these leadership attributes and skills. Somebody once said that leadership is the ability to convince people against their own ideas. So someone who is going to vote for Geraldine Ferraro says, "Oh no, I'm going to vote for Bill Gray." Somebody who doesn't want to support sanctions says, "Oh, I'm going to do it because he's chairman and because I think it's a good idea." How did you get to the point, or can you say, where you could convince people against their own ideas, to adopt ideas that are yours, rather than the ideas they came to when you approached them?
GRAY: Well, a preacher, every Sunday, is trying to convince people not to do certain things and to do other things. And often the certain things the flesh wants to do. And so, I would probably attribute that skill going back to my ministry, talking to people. And so, sure, I would talk to a congressman and say, "Will you give me your vote, so I can be the chairman of the Budget committee?" And knowing that they're from California, and that they're already committed to Leon Panetta, who I ran against. And I'd say, "Well, look. Here's why I'm a good choice." And then you also have to recognize that, hey, don't ask them to do something that's going to be unethical, break his promise. So I would say, "Can I get your vote if so and so is not in the race?" And I'm told that that was unusual, that no one had ever done that consistently before. They would just tend to get mad with a person and walk away and say, "You're not going to vote for me. Well then, okay, bye." And you know, my viewpoint as a minister, is you've got to deal with people all the time, and you know, I can oppose you, I can fight against your ideas vigorously and tough today, but I also understand that tomorrow you and I may agree on something, and we might find common ground and work on that. And probably that comes out of my ministry, too.
BOND: As important as education is, and the work that you do at the College Fund is, aside from education, what's required, what's needed, to create additional leaders, to prepare additional leaders?
GRAY: I think there are a lot of things that go into creating leadership. You have to have examples that people see early on in life. So, mentoring, good examples, for young people to look at, and learn from, and to role model. Secondly, you need education. I've been blessed – I had an excellent education. I had parents who insisted upon it. I had a mother who didn't buy a new dress for five years so that she could send my sister and I to some of the best schools in America, the sacrifice. I also had people who helped me. One of the things that is important for leadership, is you've got to have people who help you at key points in your life. And I can go back and name them. A minister named D.C. Rice, who was the minister of the church at Union Baptist Church for twenty-two years, who turned that church over to me, who sat every Sunday, not on the pulpit, but out in the pews, and who was my guide and counselor for the first three or four years of my ministry. Amazing. I think of people like Martin Luther King, Jr., who spent time with me, and shared insights, and just gave advice like, "No, I don't need you to come down and be a part of the movement. I need you to get your education, and here's why." People like that guy Ray Lederer, who went out of his way and told me something that he didn't have to tell me. But if he hadn't told me, I would have run for President [of the freshman class], okay?
There are people all along the way in life who open doors for you, and anybody who is a leader, or that you may call a leader, doesn't get there by themselves. There are a lot of people who helped to make them, going back as a child, role model, mentoring, training, okay, professors, Sidney Wise at Franklin & Marshall who got me that political experience as an intern. And then later, people in life, who just help you. So, I think those are the components, and if you listen, if you learn – and then I think, I think there's something else, and I get this out of my faith. You've got to have a passion for something. My passion has been my ministry, and a ministry that is broader than just preaching and visiting the sick, a ministry that was involved in changing the structures of social justice. Where did I get that from? Again – a father, from other ministers, some of whom I've named here. And that's been my passion. And so if you want to understand Bill Gray, understand first of all, he's a Baptist preacher. Secondly, he was a college professor at five universities. He ran for public office, did well, left that, and now heads an educational charity that raises $170 million a year to provide financial aid to historically black colleges, and to black young people to get an education. But where does that come from? From my faith and from my ministry. That's my love, that's my passion.
BOND: Bill Gray, thank you.
BOND: How does race consciousness affect your leadership style? Do you see yourself as advancing the interest of your race, or advancing the interest of society, or are these the same thing?
GRAY: I've always argued that the advancement of the interests of African Americans, in terms of the fight for equal opportunity and justice, is going to make a better and stronger America. I've never seen the conflict, and I've never felt that there was one. However, when I became chairman of the Budget committee, I understood something -- that I wasn't speaking for the black caucus. I wasn't speaking for black members, or the black community. I was speaking for the entire Democratic body of the House of Representatives.
BOND: But at the same time there must be people who say, "Bill, you are a member of the black caucus. You've got to speak for us. You can't speak just for those other people. Speak for us, too."
GRAY: Well, I think I did speak for them. I mean, when Ronald Reagan tried to eliminate Pell grants, I said no. Pell grants disproportionately affect black people. And when he started doing away with nutrition programs and wanting ketchup, I said no. So I was fighting. But I also felt that I was fighting for America. Because there are more poor white kids in America who need Pell grants than there are poor black kids. There are more poor white kids who benefit from welfare and nutrition programs, despite all the myths that we have, than black kids. And so, I didn't feel any qualms about fighting for those issues, and sometimes talking about it in a ethnic specific way. But I also recognized that there was a congressional black caucus, with its leadership, and even though I had been vice chairman of the caucus, secretary of the caucus, and worked with Walter Fauntroy when he was chairman of the caucus to set up the first black caucus alternative budget in 1981, that I couldn't speak for them. And basically, I told the black caucus members, I said, "Look, if you want to have an alternative budget to mine, go ahead. It won't hurt me." I said, "I just hope that after you have your debate, you'll vote for mine as the next best alternative." And that's what happened.
During my term as Budget committee chairman, there was a black caucus budget put on the floor every year, and there was an alternative conservative caucus put on the floor. And I was fortunate enough to get both of them to agree that if your budget doesn't pass, will you vote for mine as the best alternative. And surprising to everybody, I supported the black caucus putting a budget on the floor, opposing my budget. And they did good work, and the issues they raised later became accepted. For instance, the issues that were put into the first black caucus alternative budget in 1981 -- which Walter Fauntroy, as chairman of the black caucus, had the responsibility of -- most of those ideas were incorporated later in the '80s and the '90s, in my budgets, and in the budgets of Leon Panetta, who followed me.
BOND: Let me ask you again about race specificity. If you are identified, probably as a black leader, because of the nature of the work you do now, and the nature of the congressional district you represented in the past, your membership in the caucus and so on, does that limit you in a way? Are you bound by that in a harmful way, being a black leader?
GRAY: No, I know the first thing that some people see in me, when they see me walking down the street is my color, when I walk in a room, whether I'm a congressman, or whether I'm just Bill Gray the preacher, or whether I'm just Bill Gray the citizen, there still are people who, the first thing that they will notice -- even today, when I walk into a corporate board room.
You know, I remember one board that I served on had a beach party at a two-day retreat at a very swanky place, and I arrived late. And when my wife and I came down to the beach, and as we walked toward the party, a lady looked at me, looked at my wife, she elbowed two or three people, and she quickly walked over and said, "This is a private party." And I said, "I know," and I walked right on by her. And somebody -- she started asking who that is and then somebody said, "He's a Director." But -- did that happen when I was in Congress? Of course, there were stories written about the black chairman of the Budget committee. I don't mind that. I know that's part of America. We haven't gotten to the day where people look at each other without looking at what color the skin is, how the eyes are shaped, or what the last name is. We haven't gotten there. Or whether they're female or male, we haven't gotten there. It does not offend me. I sort of laugh at it. I recently received an honorary degree, and some -- they were reading off my credits and they said, "The highest black ever elected to the United States Congress who was Majority Whip, dah, dah -- " And somebody who was sitting next to me, who happened to be an African American leaned over and said, "Probably nobody else in this century has ever done that in twelve years, have they?" And I said, "Yeah." I said, "But they're not going to think of it that way, because they're going to see my color, so they're going to say, highest-ranking black." But I was told by the House historian that no one in the twentieth century, who served only twelve years, held chairman of the Finance committee, chairman of the Democratic caucus, and Majority Whip.