William Gray III, pictured in March 1984 at a news conference in support of freeing Soviet Jewry. (Jewish Exponent)
Two stories came together for me this week: The death of Bill Gray and President Obama’s trip to Goree Island, the Senegalese island that is said to have been the spot from which countless Africans were sent to the Americas as slaves.
What’s the connection? Back in 1989, the summer after 10th grade, I took part in a black-Jewish coexistence program called Operation Understanding, which, among other things, involved a trip to Goree Island. The program, then just a few years old, was the brainchild of the late businessman-philanthropist George Ross and Gray, who was then a fast-rising member of Congress.
I can’t claim to have had any sort of relationship with Gray, who was the highest-ranking African American in Congress when he abruptly left his post as House majority whip in 1991 to become the president and chief executive of the United Negro College Fund (where he raised billions). But he certainly made an impression on me. And, more to the point, on our hometown — Philadelphia.
Gray was the kingpin of Philly’s rainbow coalition, a grouping of establishment/integrationist minority politicians and Jewish liberals that wrested power away from the more racially polarized camp of two-term mayor Frank Rizzo. Looking back, as a
cynical seasoned journalist rather than an naive idealistic teenager, it’s easy for me to see the ways in which the Gray camp was not so different in practice than other big-city political machines. Still, coming off the racially polarizing Rizzo years and the divisive racial politics in places like New York and Chicago, Gray set an important, conciliatory and hopeful tone. Before Corey Booker had ever met Shmuley Boteach, Gray could talk the talk to Jewish audiences at a time when militants like Jesse Jackson (Hymietown edition), Louis Farrakhan and Leonard Jeffries were setting a more divisive tone nationally.
And, as many Jewish activists from Philadelphia will tell you, he walked the walked as well.
Here’s a message I got from Betsy Sheerr, a JTA board member and, more relevant to this conversation, a longtime member of JAC , a bipartisan Jewish women’s political action committee “committed to the special relationship between the US and Israel and a social agenda that includes reproductive choice and separation of religion and state”:
In its early days (the Reagan era), JAC was city chapter-based. When we called on [Gray] in DC as a national delegation advocating for our 3 issues (Israel, women’s reproductive rights and separation of religion and state), he offered to help start a Philadelphia chapter. He was our convener, so to speak, and hosted the JAC members frequently in Washington during his years as Congressman and Whip…. JAC had a very close relationship with him over the years — a fact that he recalled when I had lunch with him about a year ago! He liked the idea that we were not single-issue: though we were a pro-Israel PAC, we also cared about issues that impacted American rights and liberties.
As the Jewish Exponent notes in its obituary, Gray was there on Israel and Soviet Jewry.
William Gray touring Yad Vashem during a trip to the Middle East in summer 1983. (Jewish Exponent)