Anti-violence activist El Gray dies

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He was always there, on the streets. In the rain, snow or scorching August heat, Elbert R. “El” Gray worked tirelessly to turn youths away from the gun violence of the streets. He never complained about his illness, or even mentioned it, because it had nothing to do with his mission—saving lives.

“That’s El, he worked right up until he couldn’t anymore. He was a 24/7, 365 guy,” said One Vision One Life Executive Director Richard Garland. “His mission was saving these babies. He’s the standard. I wish I had a hundred like him.”

ElGray
COMMUNITY CHAMPION—El Gray speaks to the crowd at one of the many vigils hosted by One Vision One Life to end violence. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

Gray lost his battle with cancer Aug. 18. He was 62.

Gray had been arrested several times in his 20s and 30s for crimes such as burglary and drug possession. But having turned his life around, he sought to help others do the same. As such he became the face of One Vision One Life in the community, holding vigils for the victims of gang violence on the streets where they fell, and mediating between groups and individuals to head off retaliatory shootings. His life experience and dedication carried weight.

Will Thompkins of the Pittsburgh Project knew Gray for more than 40 years. They went to school and played basketball together back in the 1960s.

“Anything for the community—that was El,” said Thompkins. “He always had Richard’s back. He would go anywhere and do anything he was asked, and he’d stay until it was done. The job for him was easy, because it was in his heart.”

Even the loss of a grandson and a nephew to gun violence didn’t deter Gray. When relatives of victims took their stories of gun violence to city council, he was there. When a former teacher filmmaker showed his anti-violence movie on the North Side, he was there. And wherever he was, he always made an impression, sometimes with his quiet, confident demeanor, sometime with the fervor of a preacher—but always with his clothes.

It wasn’t uncommon for Gray to sport his wide-brimmed straw hat with crisply pleated trousers, two-toned shoes, and a razor thin silk tie when trying to intervene with youth on the street. That’s one of the things Pittsburgh police Zone 1 Commander Rashall Brakney said she will always remember.

“I’ll miss him. I’ll miss that ‘smooth,’ and his calls to my phone at all hours,” she said. “He was all heart and soul. He wasn’t in it for some two-year grant money—he was in the trenches. I’ll miss his vigor and determination. He was committed. It’s a loss to the community, the city and to law enforcement.”

City police Chief Nate Harper agreed.

“I’m going to miss him,” he said. “He had the heart of a lion, and would go anywhere to try to change the lives of young people. He was a faithful servant, and always on the job.”

Gray is survived by his wife, Charlene Gray; three sons, El Gray Jr., Anthony Gray and Malanzo Davis, all of Pittsburgh; and a daughter, Jamie Johnson of Columbus, Ohio.

Visitation was held Aug. 23 at Odell Robinson Funeral Home on Perrysville Avenue. Services were conducted the following day at Allegheny Alliance Church on East Ohio Street.

(Send comments to cmorrow@new­pittsburgh­courier.com.)

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