Former U.S. Congressman William H. Gray III spoke of his lifelong association with the family of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and challenged the characterization of the slain civil rights leader as a “dreamer” in a talk yesterday (Jan. 26) in Baker Hall.
“He was no dreamer. He was much, much more than that,” said Gray, who delivered the keynote address and culminating event of the university’s 10-day celebration of the life and legacy of King. “To call him a dreamer is to miss the point of his entire life. He was a revolutionary who led the third revolution in this country in the fight for civil rights.”
Over the course of a relationship that spanned three generations, Gray’s family and King’s family shared a devotion to faith and social justice, and supported each other at pivotal moments in parallel lives that blended preaching and politics.
Gray was with King at the now legendary 1963 march on Washington, where a quarter of million people gathered at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial to hear King deliver what has become the most famous of his addresses: the “I Have a Dream” speech.
“There was Peter, Paul and Mary, then the great Mahalia Jackson, and then this little preacher stepped up to the podium, and for 30 minutes, led an attack on all the foundations of 200-some years of American history,” Gray said. “As we would say in the ‘hood, he was coming home.
“Then, for about two or three minutes, Martin started talking about his dream for America, and it riveted the audience,” he said. “You have to understand, this was the first time an African American was live on national TV making a presentation. Yes, there were scenes of civil rights protests and attacking dogs, and yes, there were interviews after the protests. But this was the first time ever that an African American person was shown to everyone and was allowed to make his case.”
Gray suggested that televised coverage of the “I Have a Dream” speech and subsequent footage of burly white policeman beating black women and children during civil rights protests helped galvanize support for civil rights across the country. That broad support, he said, led to the passage of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, which extended voting rights and outlawed racial segregation.
“You have to understand the times back then,” he said. “Let me take you back to the America of the 1950s and 1960s. African American men had fought in every war for America—every war—and shed their blood on foreign soil. But when they came home, they could not vote.
A belief in the essential goodness of mankind
“They could fly with the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II and protect American bombers—they never lost one bomber on a mission,” Gray said. “But yet, when they came home, they had to ride in the back of the bus and in segregated cars in the back of the train. In some cases, they had to give up their seats to German prisoners of war, and ride only in the ‘black’ cars.”
More devastating to future generations, he said, were the educational opportunities that were denied to young black men and women, simply because of the color of their skin.
“That was the America that Martin Luther King was speaking out to,” Gray said. “He had the tenacity to call for an end to that political system. He was a revolutionary, my friends. And it was not easy to fight for civil rights. There was violence. But he had a strategy inspired by Gandhi: to nonviolently confront prejudice and bigotry, and if necessary, die for your ideals.
“And yes, there were those who died in the struggle. It was not without bloodshed. But the walls came down.”
King was, at heart, a preacher buoyed by a deep faith in the essential goodness of mankind, Gray said.
To illustrate King’s forgiving nature, Gray recalled the time that King stayed at his family’s Philadelphia home to raise money in the African American community to help fund his civil rights campaign. Just ten months earlier, a deranged woman had plunged a knife into King’s chest, narrowly missing his heart. But King would not allow his hosts to denigrate the woman.
“We were calling her a hussy, and Martin calmly said, ‘Don’t do that—she is a child of God.’ That’s the kind of man he was,” Gray said.
Knowing King as well as he did, Gray said that he would have been beaming with pride when Barack Obama, the country’s first black president, was inaugurated last January.
“Give as much as you can”
“But Martin understood that the injustices and residue of 250 years of institutionalized racism don’t go away in two generations,” he said. “He would say, ‘We haven’t got there yet. He would look at the disparities in health care and in education and recognize that much more work remains to be done. He would say ‘We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny, and I can rise no higher and be no greater than my brother and my sister.’
“He was motivated by a faith and a love that generated a desire to climb every mountain of injustice and create a better world,” Gray said. “That was the legacy of King—not to make as much as you can and sit on your can, but to make as much as you can and give as much as you can.”
Gray was introduced by Lloyd Steffen , university chaplain and professor of religion studies, who described Gray’s successful political career as a U.S. Representative from Philadelphia from 1979 to 1991 and his subsequent 14-year tenure as president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund, where he raised more than $2.3 billion to expand educational opportunities for black students.
Gray is now co-chair of Gray Loeffler, LLC, a consulting firm specializing in government relations, education, business advisory services and diversity counseling. He retired in 2007 after serving more than three decades as pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia.
Photo by Theo Anderson