Updated at 11:45 a.m. ET
PHILADELPHIA Former Rep. William H. Gray III, who rose to influential positions in Congress and was the first black to become majority whip, died Monday at 71.
Gray passed away suddenly Monday while in London with one of his sons to attend the Wimbledon tennis championships, said William Epstein, a former aide to Gray.
Born in Baton Rouge, La., Gray graduated from Franklin & Marshall College and Drew Theological Seminary in Jersey City, N.J., before being elected as a Democrat to Congress in 1978. He served as chairman of the powerful budget committee and became the first African-American in the 20th century to become majority whip of the U.S. House. During his tenure, he authored legislation implementing economic sanctions against South Africa.
In 1991, he surprised colleagues by resigning to run the United Negro College Fund, for which a biography on his company website says he raised more than $2.3 billion for minority institutions. In 1994, President Bill Clinton tapped him as a temporary special adviser on Haiti.
Succeeding his father as pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church in 1972, he continued in that position until 2007. Epstein said he commuted back to the city on weekends to deliver Sunday sermons.
Gray also founded Gray Global Advisors, a business and consulting firm of which he was chairman emeritus at the time of his death.
He is survived by his mother, his wife and three sons.
In a written statement, President Obama called him "a trailblazer" and praised his "extraordinary leadership, on issues from housing to transportation to supporting efforts that ended Apartheid in South Africa, made our communities, our country and our world a more just place."
Mayor Michael Nutter hailed him as "a transformative leader among leaders" and ordered flags at all city buildings to fly at half-staff beginning Tuesday.
"He knew guys on the corner, and he knew Nelson Mandela and everyone in between," Nutter said in a statement. "He created a political organization that for decades has continued to be one of the most powerful, productive and progressive forces in the social and political life of our city's history."
Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., called Gray "a tireless advocate for the people of Philadelphia and a trailblazer for a new generation of African American elected officials."
Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., credited Gray with helping to develop housing for low- and middle-income residents through the nonprofit Union Housing Corp. and with providing federal resources for renovations that have made the city's Amtrak station "one of the best, most efficiently run train facilities in the nation."
"And finally, Bill Gray was my friend - he was the very embodiment of how to turn the power and platform of the House of Representatives for true public service," Fattah said.