Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Career: Shifts

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.