I was saddened to learn that Bill Gray, the former Philadelphia congressman, majority whip and, following his 1991 resignation from Congress, the president of the United Negro College Fund, passed away suddenly yesterday while on vacation in Great Britain.
As a native Philadelphian, I had crossed paths with Bill Gray on a number of occasions. I had sporadically volunteered at his North Philadelphia church, and had also participated in “Operation Understanding,” a program he founded along with the late George Ross, chairman of the board of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Jewish Committee, to encourage greater communication and relations between the black and Jewish communities which had worked so closely during the civil rights era. Indeed, it was largely Bill Gray’s work that kept the Congressional Black Caucus’s support for Israel and many Jewish causes strong during the turbulent 1980s. Operation Understanding still functions, and I’m proud to call myself an alumnus, although I regret that presumably for financial reasons, they no longer take Philadelphia high school students abroad to Senegal, Gambia, and Israel and concentrate instead on black and Jewish history only in the United States.
When I entered college in 1990, I was sure I was a liberal; it was only when I got to Yale that I learned that what I considered liberal, the majority of the student body considered more conservative. I was especially reticent about some labor issues and affirmative action, but Bill Gray took me on as an intern anyway. And while we may have disagreed on some policies, I was an intern, so I kept my mouth shut, listened and learned. Bill Gray was certainly dedicated to maximizing educational opportunities for African Americans, but at the same time, he did possess a colorblind streak. That really came home to me in one of my first days in the office when his staff director informed me that I had become a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation fellow for the summer. Evidently, while Gray was unable to pay interns directly, he would seek to match them up with various fellowships and scholarships and had sent my application to the Foundation. They had neither asked, nor did he inform them, that I was not black.
I learned a lot from Bill Gray. He was a good man, dedicated to his family, and passionate about his causes. I certainly mourn his passing. May he rest in peace.