William Gray was part of the network of black ministers throughout the country who supported Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement. As pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Gray raised $1,500 for the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) in 1956.
Gray was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1911. He received his BS from Bluefield State College and his MA (1934) and PhD (1942) from the University of Pennsylvania. He served as president of Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University at Tallahassee from 1944 to 1949, before succeeding his father as pastor of Bright Hope Baptist. Gray was active in civic affairs in Philadelphia, serving on the police advisory board, the civil service commission, and the housing authority.
Gray and King met in 1949, when King was a student at nearby Crozer Theological Seminary. Gray wrote his friend, Martin Luther King, Sr., saying: “He seems to be quite a fine young gentleman, and I am sure that you and Mrs. King must be proud of the record he is making for himself and his family” (Papers 1:210). King, Jr., appeared often at Bright Hope to raise money for the MIA, and when Gray’s daughter, Marian, was active in the sit-ins of 1960, King, Jr., sent Gray a letter congratulating her “courageous activities,” adding: “When I read it, my heart was throbbing with joy. You see, my friend, that is that old fighting spirit in you coming out anew” (Papers 5:408).
When King, Jr., was arrested in the Atlanta sit-ins of 1960, Gray sent telegrams to Mayor William Hartsfield, the Atlanta Daily World, and Rich’s department store protesting King’s treatment. Throughout the 1960s Gray worked to integrate Pennsylvania's state teachers’ colleges.