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Former U.S. Rep. William Gray, 71, First Black Majority Whip, Dies

WI Web Staff | 7/2/2013, 11:30 a.m. | Updated on 7/2/2013, 3:35 p.m.
William H. Gray (Courtesy of grayglobaladvisors.com)

Former U.S. Rep. William H. Gray III, a political icon in Philadelphia and the first African American to become majority whip, died Monday in London. He was 71.

Family spokesman William Epstein said Gray was attending the tennis matches at Wimbledon with his youngest son, Andrew, according to UPI.

"Apparently, it was a sudden death," said Epstein, who served as press secretary when Gray, a Baptist minister, was elected to Congress.

Born in Baton Rouge, La., Gray graduated from Franklin & Marshall College and Drew Theological Seminary in Jersey City, N.J., succeeding his father in 1972 as the senior minister at Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia until his retirement in 2007.

He was elected to Congress in 1978, representing Pennsylvania's 2nd congressional district. He was chairman of the House's budget committee and eventually became majority whip of the U.S. House — the first African American to do either.

In 1985, Gray introduced H.R. 1460, a bill that prohibited loans and new investment in South Africa. Congress approved the legislation a year later, and it became known as the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986.

"His dedicated leadership benefited the African diaspora," said U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

In 1991, he left Congress to head the United Negro College Fund. Three years later, he served as a special adviser to President Clinton for Haitian affairs.

“Bill Gray managed to make as much history as he made friends, in a life that will be remembered for both," said D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. "I was not in the Congress when he served and resigned, but Bill had many friends outside of the chamber, like me. I remember being disappointed when he left Congress because Bill had what it would have taken to be Speaker of the House.”

President Obama agreed, calling Gray a "trailblazer."

"Bill's extraordinary leadership, on issues from housing to transportation to supporting efforts that ended apartheid in South Africa, made our communities, our country and our world a more just place," Obama said.

He is survived by his mother, his wife, Andrea, and three sons.