NBC10.com - Matt DeLucia
Former Congressman Bill Gray was remembered Saturday at a memorial service in North Philadelphia. Gray died of natural causes two weeks ago in London. He was 71. Hundreds paid their respects at Bright Hope Baptist Church. NBC10’s Matt DeLucia reports.
Friends and family gathered in North Philadelphia on Saturday to celebrate the life and legacy of former member of the U.S. House of Representatives and Philadelphia minister William Herbert (Bill) Gray III.
Gray died back on July 1 while attending the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in London. He was 71 years old. A family spokesman said Gray had not been ill and that his death was sudden. It appears that he died from natural causes, according to the spokesman.
A memorial service took place Saturday at Bright Hope Baptist Church on 12th Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue in North Philadelphia where Gray served for several years. Doors opened at 9:30 a.m. and the service began at 11 a.m. Former president Bill Clinton, Mayor Michael Nutter as well as dozens of members of congress attended. Governor Tom Corbett also ordered flags at half-staff in honor of Gray.
"This is a life to celebrate," said Clinton during his speech at the memorial. "This is a man who made history."
Born in Baton Rouge, La., Gray graduated from Simon Gratz High School in Philadelphia back in 1959. In 1972, he became the senior minister at Bright Hope Baptist Church.
Church leaders from Bright Hope Baptist learned of Gray's death during an emergency meeting.
"We're talking about someone who not only became majority whip but was the Barack Obama of his day." said Rev. Kevin Johnson of Bright Hope Baptist.
"It's heart-wrenching," said Brenda Willingham, who attends the church. "It hurts so bad. He's going to be truly missed by his congregation."
In 1978, Gray was elected as a Democrat to represent Philadelphia in the House of Representatives. He represented Pennsylvania’s 2nd congressional district until he resigned in 1991.
Gray was also the first African-American to chair the House Budget Committee and the first to serve as the Majority Whip.
"He was a big man doing a big job," former Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode said. "He knew how to get stuff done."
Goode, who was Philly's first African American Mayor, says Gray paved the way for him and other African Americans in politics.
"He was a pathfinder," Goode said. "He proved that an African American can run without party support."
While chairman of the Committee on Budget, Gray introduced H.R. 1460, an influential anti-apartheid bill.
From 1991 to 2004, Gray served as president of the United Negro College Fund.
Gray leaves behind a wife and three sons. The family spokesperson says funeral services will soon be announced.
“I am truly stunned, saddened and hurt by the loss of this great man who was so influential in my own growth as a public servant as well as dozens of other Philadelphians, particularly in the African American community," said Mayor Michael Nutter. "Bill Gray was also a unifying force bringing together a multi-racial coalition to work in the best interests of all Philadelphians. Bill’s passing is a dramatic and significant loss for Philadelphia, the Commonwealth and the nation he served with honor and distinction."
Philadelphia Council President Darrell Clarke called Gray "one of the most significant figures in Philadelphia politics" in a released statement.
“From advocating for Philadelphia’s fair share of federal dollars to fighting against the injustice of apartheid in South Africa, Congressman Gray’s mark cannot be erased," Clarke said. "He helped make the renovation of 30th Street Station possible, and the sight of that magnificent structure should give us all reason to be thankful for his service."