First Black Majority Whip, William Gray III, Dies; Wanted to Be Remembered as Preacher Not Politician

When William Gray III passed away at the age of 71 in London last week, obituaries were quick to highlight his political accomplishments as the first African-American majority whip, his outstanding fundraising abilities at the United Negro College Fund and his work on almost a dozen corporate boards.

But according to Kevin Johnson, the current pastor at Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia, where Gray preached for 36 years, none of those were the legacies that Gray wanted for his life.

"When people come to [Gray's memorial] service on Saturday, there will be no politicians speaking," said Johnson to The Christian Post on Monday. "Gray didn't want people to remember him as the congressman or the businessman but as preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ."

Both Gray's father and grandfather served as pastors at Bright Hope Baptist Church before Gray, who attended Drew Theological Seminary and Princeton Theological Seminary, assumed the role in 1971.

Meanwhile, his political interests, fed by his father's own political passions, intersected closely with his faith.

"He was a product of the civil rights movement," said Johnson. "His father had brought people like John F. Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Martin Luther King Jr. to the church. [Politics] was just a natural step; he wanted advance causes that would benefit all people."

For their part, the congregation supported his decision to go into politics, throwing fundraisers and hosting meetings to encourage his quest to serve the House of Representatives. The first time he ran, he lost to the incumbent by less than 500 votes. He won the next time, in the 1978 election.

Gray enjoyed tremendous success while on the Hill; less than 10 years in he already chaired the powerful House Budget Committee and was elected majority whip by his fellow Democrats in 1989.

Still, despite his success in Washington, Gray still found time to return back to Philadelphia every weekend to preach to his congregation. Keeping his politics and preaching separate, Gray did not accept a salary from the church, explaining that he did not need to receive a salary because "God had called him to preach."

"Every Sunday morning at Bright Hope you could hear him talking about equality for all persons, not just here in the United States, but countries like South Africa," said Johnson. "I knew he was most passionate about equality when he brought about the first female deacons. Doing that at a black, Baptist church was really revolutionary, but he did it."

One of the greatest examples of Gray's faith and political values converging was his helping to overturn apartheid in South Africa. Gray helped draft Congress' apartheid act, which led to the economic sanctions that crippled South Africa's economy and subsequently led to Nelson Mandela's release from prison.

"When they write the history books of what led to freeing Mandela after 27 years, they'll say it was because of a man named Bill Gray from Pennsylvania, who vigorously fought to free another man," said Johnson.

Ironically, Johnson added, as Mandela's health has deteriorated in the past few weeks, Gray figured he would be attending the former South African president's funeral. .

"His successes in life were not about him," Johnson concluded. "They were all about what we all could achieve if we kept our faith in God."

Gray's memorial service will take place on July 13 at Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Pa., starting at 11 a.m. ET.