Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influence of Racial Discrimination

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."