William H. Gray III, a Baptist minister who became one of the highest-ranking members of Congress before leading UNCF (United Negro College Fund), died Monday. The 71-year-old was attending the Wimbledon tennis tournament in London but had not been ill and the cause of death was not immediately clear, according to reports.
“As a minister, politician, civil rights advocate and great education leader, Bill Gray was a renaissance man who produced extraordinary results in everything he did,” said Dr. Michael Lomax, UNCF’s current president and CEO. “He elevated this organization and transformed the lives of the students we service. The entire UNCF family mourns his passing,” he said.
A memorial service is planned for July 13 at 11 a.m. at Bright Hope Baptist Church in North Philadelphia.
Gray took the helm of UNCF in 1991 and led the organization until 2004. During his tenure, he raised more than $2.3 billion and in 1994 moved the headquarters from New York City to Fairfax, Va. Founded in 1944, UNCF supports scholarships for black students and nearly 40 historically black colleges and universities (HBCU). The organization moved into new headquarters in Washington, D.C. early this year.
Gray came to UNCF directly from Congress, where he served 12 years in the House of Representatives, rising to become the first African-American chairman of the Budget Committee, where he pushed key anti-apartheid legislation. He also was the first African-American majority whip, the third highest ranking post in the House. President Bill Clinton appointed him as a special advisor on Haiti in 1994.
“For UNCF’s staff, students and partners, Bill Gray was a trailblazer – a mentor, teacher and leader who supported the educational advancement of generations to come,” according to a statement by UNCF. “In addition to his political, religious and civic efforts, Bill’s legacy will always shine through the lives of our nation’s diverse, well-resourced student body that stands committed to getting to and through college. His passing is certainly a huge loss to the education community, yet his indelible impression will not be easily forgotten.”
Born in Baton Rouge, La., Gray was pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Pa., when he was elected to Congress in 1978. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., and divinity degrees from Drew Theological Seminary and Princeton Theological Seminary. He also was a minister at Union Baptist Church in Montclair, N.J.
Surviving are his wife, Andrea; sons, Andrew, Justin and William IV; his mother, Hazel, and two grandchildren.