WASHINGTON -- As expected, Representative William H. Gray III, the Philadelphia Democrat who became the first black majority whip in the history of the House of Representatives and appeared to be on his way to becoming the first black speaker of the House, announced yesterday that he will resign from Congress.
Mr. Gray and officials of the United Negro College Fund said at a news conference in New York that he would quit Congress in September to become president and chief executive officer of the fund, the main fund-raising arm of 43 traditionally black institutions across the nation.
"After nearly 12 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and just over two years in the leadership of that body, I've decided to accept a new challenge in a new arena," Mr. Gray said at the news conference.
Mr. Gray, 49, has been a member of Congress since 1979. He is also a Baptist minister and a former professor of church history. His father was president of two traditionally black colleges, and his mother was dean of students at another.
Mr. Gray said that he would complete the current House session, scheduled to end Aug. 5, and go to work for the college fund Sept. 3.
His decision to quit Congress touched off a scramble for his position as the third-ranking Democratic leader in the House and for his seat as representative from Philadelphia's heavily black 2nd District.
Maryland Representative Steny H. Hoyer, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, is an announced candidate, along with Representative David E. Bonior of Michigan, the chief deputy whip.
Former Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode leads a list of politicians who have indicated a desire to take over Mr. Gray's House seat.
Mr. Gray's resignation from Congress, word of which began leaking out two days ago, continued to bring expressions of surprise and consternation yesterday from some Capitol Hill colleagues and from black leaders and black political analysts.
"I'm disappointed. I'm shocked and I'm surprised," Representative John Lewis, D-Ga., said.
The Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said, "When I first heard of Bill Gray's plan, I couldn't believe it. He has been -- he still is -- one of the two or three most influential blacks in America. That he would be a future speaker of the House was a virtual certainty."
Roger Wilkins, a civil rights advocate, author and history professor at George Mason University, described Mr. Gray as "the most powerful black officeholder we have ever had."
"His move represents a definite loss of political power for blacks," said Ronald Walters, a Howard University political scientist.
Mr. Gray said yesterday that among his reasons for leaving Congress was a desire to spend more time as pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia -- where he preaches most Sundays, as his father did before him -- and to spend more "quality time" with his family. He and his wife are the parents of three teen-age boys.
Others said that one of Mr. Gray's considerations had to be the big increase in pay he is likely to receive. Although he declined yesterday to disclose his salary at the college fund, others noted that Mr. Gray, who makes $125,000 a year as a member of Congress, might triple that.
Mr. Gray also is expected to receive money from several sources barred to him as a member of Congress -- as pastor of his church, as an eventual member of several corporate boards and for speaking engagements around the country.
Mr. Gray said yesterday that he might have less "visibility" in his new job than he has as a House member or might have had as speaker of the House.
But he said that becoming speaker would not have been "the end-all. . . . I think there's a more important contribution for me and a greater mission for me: to help provide educational opportunity, to widen the doors of education, for over 50,000 black students."
Some analysts, however, said Mr. Gray might be able to establish himself as a national political figure in a post that offers a platform for independent political thinking.