Aftershocks reverberated around the country as Representative William H. Gray stood before the microphones in New York and said he was happy to be leaving Congress to head the United Negro College Fund. Politicians rushed to fill the shoes Mr. Gray is stepping away from, in the leadership of the House of Representatives and in his hometown of Philadelphia.
For almost everyone else, speculation about why he did it is the topic of the day.
One theory, mentioned in almost every news story, holds that Mr. Gray, the third-highest ranking member of the House Democratic leadership and the highest-ranked black congressman, is running from a scandal. The reasons he gave for walking away from Capitol Hill, that he needed to make more money, that he was bored with his work as vote-counter and support-marshaller for the House speaker's programs and that he wanted to spend more time with his family don't carry much weight from this standpoint.
Maybe the Justice Department's ongoing probe of Mr. Gray's finances, reportedly now centered on an accountant who handled his bookkeeping, was closing in. Mr. Gray's attorney, Abbe Lowell, tried to dispel such suspicions by reminding questioners that Attorney General Dick Thornburgh publicly disclaimed targeting Mr. Gray two years ago, but other Justice aides keep telling reporters the probe is still on.
Politics can always produce surprises, but the scandal theory doesn't support its own weight just now. A major weakness is the fact that winds from any scandal big enough to chase Mr. Gray out of the House of Representatives would still be forceful enough to make the presidency of the United Negro College Fund untenable. For while Christopher Edley never quite made himself a household word to those not following the news of black colleges, the task the United Negro College Fund has before it in the 1990s is daunting. Take a look:
In just 10 years, young people in America's black and Hispanic communities will make up almost one-quarter of all the college-age youths this country has to offer. Blacks have steadily improved their high-school graduation rates and their performance on national measures such as the National Assessments of Educational Progress, but their college-going rates have declined consistently since 1980.
Part of that is due purely to economics -- twice as many black students as white ones depended on financial aid, and their parents have suffered heavily from the recession -- but another part has to do with mainstream white America's political antagonism toward the grant programs that supported their college dreams.
As it is, despite making up only 3 percent of all U.S. colleges, the nation's black colleges in 1990 graduated 31 percent of all the blacks receiving bachelor's degrees. The United Negro College Fund, founded in 1944, raises money for less than half of the 100 or so historically black colleges, but its activities necessarily make its president a national spokesman and cheerleader for black higher education.
With report after report circulating about the greater need of post-high-school education required for tomorrow's jobs, it is clear that black colleges, the ranking experts in boosting underprivileged and under-appreciated black youngsters to their full potential, must carry a lion's share of the educational burden. At the same time, however, some less-circulated reports signal rocky financial times ahead for the colleges, which lack endowments large enough to undergird their needs. Most of these institutions were founded after the Civil War, and many of their physical plants are in sad repair.
These colleges led the way into the student-led civil rights revolution of the 1960s, but saw their heyday wane when suits and demonstrations opened doors at white institutions across the country and blacks as well as whites questioned their continued validity. Now, they face burgeoning enrollments and calls for new programs as black parents and students rediscover the virtues of black colleges in an era of financial-aid cutbacks and increasing hostility on white campuses.
Thus, a William H. Gray III, son of a president and dean of black colleges and grandson of a professor, has his work cut out for him. Bill Cosby's $20-million gift to Atlanta's Spelman College, the largest single gift to a black college, woke up many people to the duty owed these institutions which give so much to the community. Walter Annenberg's $50-million challenge grant to the United Negro College Fund, the lynchpin of a $250 million capital campaign, sounded a call to the nation's better-off citizens that the duty was not just owed by black Americans, but by everyone who truly believed in opportunity.
All of that points to a high-visibility president, fighting to complete the three-year task set by Mr. Edley and Ambassador Annenberg to raise more money than the United Negro College Fund ever raised before. A president who had legal problems, whose very presence provoked whispers and looks askance, probably couldn't pull it off.
Conversely, a William Gray who did pull it off, who met and persuaded philanthropists from America's right wing as well as its left and was seen as a national, non-partisan leader who charged about the country solving one of its biggest problems, might be able to re-enter politics with an enhanced reputation. Mr. Gray did not express such motives during his New York press conference, but politics is full of surprises. It could happen.
For now, three cheers for the United Negro College Fund, and for Mr. Gray, who surprised everyone once and may do so yet again, someday in the future.
Garland L. Thompson writes editorials for The Sun.