William H. Gray III, a third-generation Baptist minister from Philadelphia who won a seat in Congress in 1978 and rose to become the highest-ranking black lawmaker in the country, died on Monday in London. He was 71.
He died while attending the Wimbledon tennis tournament with his son Andrew, said William Epstein, who was Mr. Gray’s communications director in Congress. Mr. Epstein said that Mr. Gray had not been ill and that the cause was not immediately clear.
Mr. Gray, who served in the House from 1979 to 1991, was a persistent voice for equal rights, education and services for the poor, in the United States and abroad. He pressed for more economic aid for Africa and was a leading critic of South African apartheid, helping shape United States policy, including sanctions, against that country. He led the House Budget Committee in the 1980s, and his fellow Democrats selected him as majority whip in 1989, the third-ranking House leadership position.
Two years later, Mr. Gray surprised many people when he resigned to become president and chief executive of the United Negro College Fund. He went on to lead the nonprofit group to record fund-raising.
“Bill Gray was a trailblazer,” President Obama said in a statement, “the first African-American to chair the Budget Committee and to serve as the majority whip.”
Six years before he was elected to Congress, Mr. Gray became pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church in North Philadelphia, and he would serve as pastor for 35 years. He succeeded his father, William H. Gray Jr., who preached there for 22 years, and his grandfather, William H. Gray Sr., who served from 1925 until his death in 1949. While in Congress, he would return to Philadelphia on weekends to preach.