WASHINGTON -- The first-ever black majority whip in the House of Representatives seethed when it was suggested that his recent resignation from Congress was an abdication of black political strength.
In an interview last week, Representative William H. Gray III, the Philadelphia Democrat who had been on the ladder of power leading to the post of speaker of the House -- the third-highest office in the nation -- boiled over.
An editorial in Roll Call, a privately published newspaper on Capitol Hill, had described Mr. Gray's resignation, effective in September, as "a graceless departure."
It said that he had "still not provided a satisfactory explanation for leaving an almost sure track to the speakership" to become president of the United Negro College Fund, the fund-raising arm for 41 traditionally black colleges and universities.
"My explanation was unsatisfactory? According to whom?" Mr. Gray exploded. The problem of the editorial writer, he said, was that he or she had never met a black American "who got where I am in the white power structure and said, 'Yes, this is fine. I've mastered this. But I'm going back into my community and do something else.' "
"The opportunity to have an impact on a million black kids' lives in the next decade is as worthy, if not more worthy, than being speaker," he said.
"Being speaker is power, but educating a million black kids is just as much power. That's my value system. Bill Gray's value system is a lot different from that of the average pol, and from the average person who looks at the political scene."
Representative Gray, 49, said his "life dream" had been to be "a preacher, a teacher." He taught church history for 12 years in several colleges, and is the pastor of the Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia. His father was the president of two traditionally black colleges. His mother was dean of a college.
Against this background, he said, his 12-year career in Congress "probably has been an aberration."
At the same time, it was also clear that Mr. Gray regarded the path to the House speakership, now held by Representative Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., as neither "sure" nor short.
"Potentially, potentially, I could have become majority leader," he said. "I could be. Maybe. What people are talking about is the possibility of my being speaker. You can't make your life decisions on that."
Mr. Gray recalled the death of John Heinz III, the Republican senator from Pennsylvania who was killed in a plane crash on April 4. "John Heinz and I left Washington on the same morning, both on private planes," he said. "There's no guarantee."
Jon Plebani, a long-time aide to Representative Gray who is now chief of staff in the office of majority whip, recalled that the congressman had been under heavy pressure to seek Mr. Heinz's Senate seat in a special election.
"No one seemed worried at that time that Bill would be abandoning the path to becoming speaker to become 100th and last in line in the Senate -- if he won the election," Mr. Plebani commented.
According to a source close to Mr. Gray who spoke only if his anonymity were assured, Mr. Gray and House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri shared a restlessness about how long it would take either of them to become speaker. Mr. Gephardt is theoretically next in line -- and one step ahead of Mr. Gray -- and only eight months older.
"Gephardt and Gray have talked frankly and cordially to each other about the situation. Neither wants to wait around who-knows-how-long to become speaker," the source said. "Gephardt doesn't plan to wait. He's going to run for the presidency, probably in '92 and, win or lose, again in '96.
"But Bill Gray saw at least a six-year wait ahead of him before he would get a clear shot at being speaker," the source added. "And that, for him, was a long wait."
Some critics of Mr. Gray's decision to leave Congress have argued that with both the White House and the Supreme Court now in the hands of conservatives -- the retirement last week of Justice Thurgood Marshall reinforcing their takeover -- blacks must maintain and increase their power in Congress.
To this argument, Mr. Gray responded in the interview, "I reject the notion that somehow you owe it to black folk to stay where you are because suddenly they are extremely proud of you. I feel their love, and I'm glad to have their pride directed toward me, but we can't get caught up in the idea that we only have one 'superblack'.
"Before the decade of the '90s is over, you're going to have more than 40 black members of Congress. And there will be a black speaker."
As Mr. Gray announced his resignation, reports resurfaced that federal authorities were investigating his finances and his financial relationship with his church.
Questioned about them, Mr. Gray said flatly last week that "there is no investigation of me at all." Mr. Plebani said that Mr. Gray has had "no contact" with the Justice Department since Attorney General Dick Thornburgh issued a formal statement in April 1990 that neither the department nor the Federal Bureau of Investigation was investigating the congressman.
Still, the reports persisted last week -- particularly in the Washington Times, which said that "subpoenas were issued after Mr. Thornburgh's statements."
On Friday, a Justice Department source said in response to an inquiry that Mr. Gray is "free and clear. There's nothing hanging over him."
"I have no information that would lead me to believe that the department is conducting any kind of any investigation of Mr. Gray -- and I think I would know if something like that was going on," said the source, who insisted on anonymity.
With that perhaps behind him, Mr. Gray, who has often been mentioned as a possible candidate for national office -- particularly as a vice presidential candidate -- was asked whether he was taking himself out of national politics.
"I'm still a politician enough to say, 'Never say never,' " he replied.