Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influential People: Black Ministers

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.