Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Social Consciousness: Race

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.