In the 1980s, when the historic relationship between Jews and African-Americans appeared to be coming apart at the seams in Philadelphia and other cities throughout the country, William H. Gray III worked steadfastly to preserve the alliance.
Now, the Jewish community is mourning the loss of the 71-year-old former congressman from Philadelphia, who died suddenly on July 1 during a visit to England. He represented the city in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1979-1991, rising through the ranks to become chairman of the influential House budget committee.
Broadly speaking, he’s being remembered as a titan of Philadelphia politics and a mentor to a generation of African-American politicians and civic leaders. But Jewish leaders are also remembering Gray — the longtime senior pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church in North Philadelphia — for his steadfast support of Israel. Gray was also honored by the Jewish Community Relations Council in the mid-1980s for his activism on behalf of Soviet Jewry.
“Bill was a real friend to the Jewish community,” said Burt Siegel, who spent 35 years at the Jewish Community Relations Council and remained friends with Gray long after he left Congress.
The politician may be best known in the Jewish community for co-founding Operation Understanding in 1985, which brought African-American and Jewish teenagers together for a summer trip to Israel and Senegal to learn about one another’s roots. Today, the group travels throughout the United States to visit places significant to the civil rights struggle as well as Jewish and African-American history.
"We honor his legacy by continuing to develop compassionate, knowledgeable individuals who are ready to serve, prepared to lead and eager to make a difference," Operation Understanding Director Allison Pokras said in a statement.
Gray started the initiative with Jewish philanthropist George Ross, who died in 2011. It began as a project of the American Jewish Committee’s Philadelphia chapter and the Urban League of Greater Philadelphia, but eventually became its own organization.
Gray had wanted to create a program that would inspire African-American youth to become community leaders. Growing up a child of the civil rights movement, he remembered a time when Jewish and black youth worked closely together and he wanted a younger generation to have that same kind of experience, according to David Hyman, an attorney who was active in the early days of Operation Understanding.
"He sought to keep that alliance thriving," said Hyman. "Because of people like Bill Gray, things never unraveled like they did in other cities."
Hyman said Gray would often talk about traveling to the South as a child and seeing signs that said "No Jews and No Niggers." After that, Hyman said, Gray always saw the two groups as being in the same boat.
Sam Katz, a three-time candidate for Philadelphia mayor, ran's Gray's first campaign for Congress in 1976, which he lost by 300 votes. Katz said that Gray will be remembered as one of the city's most effective representatives in Washington.
"He also was very much a product of his father’s generation," Katz said. The civil rights coalition with Jews and African Americans was "part of who he was."
In a 1991 interview with the Exponent, Gray said he saw himself as a “bridge builder with all communities. This is an international village that we live in. If we don’t live together, we will surely destroy each other.”
At that time, Murray Friedman, a Jewish communal legend who ran the local office of the AJC for more than 30 years, said that “Gray was trying to bring blacks and Jews together when the forces out there were pulling them apart.”
Among those forces was the growing criticism of Israel from many African-American leaders. But Gray remained solidly in the pro-Israel camp, repeatedly voting for aid to Israel while opposing arms sales to Arab nations.
In 1989, President George H.W. Bush admonished Israel for its 1989 abduction in Lebanon of Hezbollah leader Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid. While Bush demanded Israel release Obeid, Gray defended Israel, though he did add that he wished Israel had consulted the United States before carrying out the raid.
Gray also worked to mend communal fences after a 1979 incident in which Andrew Young, an African-American politician who was serving as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was forced to resign after meeting with a representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Some African-Americans blamed the Jewish community for Young’s downfall.
Siegel said that Gray’s concern for Israel was based on his views of the Bible and his belief that Zionism represented the Jewish people’s liberation movement.
Gray did criticize Israel from time to time, especially for its harsh crackdown against the first Palestinian intifada in the late 1980s.
Betsy Sheerr, who is active in the Democratic Party and in Jewish causes, said Gray encouraged her to help start a Philadelphia chapter of JAC, a national political action commitee that backed pro-Israel candidates who took liberal stands on domestic issues. Since he already cared about Israel, foreign aid and women's reproductive rights, Sheerr said, supporting such a political effort "was a natural fit for him."
Click the multimedia tab to the right for a slideshow of Gray throughout the years.