Former Missouri Democratic Congressman William L. Clay Sr. was born in St. Louis, Missouri on April 30, 1931, one of seven children. Clay excelled in school and at the age of thirteen began working as a janitor in a clothing store. He later became the tailor for the store. Clay graduated from St. Louis University in 1953 with a B.S. degree in history and political science, and then served in the military. Upon his discharge he worked as a real estate broker and manager of a life insurance company.
In the 1950s Clay became active in St. Louis politics and in the civil rights movement emerging in the city. In 1959 he was elected to the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, representing the 26th ward. He held the position until 1964. Between 1961 and 1964 he was also a business representative for the city employees union and between 1966 and 1967 was the educational coordinator for a local steamfitters union.
In 1968 Clay won the Democratic Primary nomination for Missouri’s First Congressional District. He won the seat outright in the general election in November, becoming the first African American elected to Congress from the state of Missouri.
William Clay served 16 terms in the U.S. Congress before retiring in 2001. He was one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1971. He was also a member of the Committee on Education and Labor and chairman of the Subcommittee on Labor-Management Relations. Clay was also a member of the Committee on House Administration and chaired its subcommittee on Libraries and Memorials. He also served as a ranking member of the Post Office and Civil Service Committee.
Clay helped author the Tax Reform Act of 1986, and also sponsored legislation for parental and medical leave, mandatory notification of plant closings, and protection of labor unions’ negotiating rights with employers
In 1992 William Clay wrote a history and catalog of African Americans in Congress titled Just Permanent Interests: Black Americans in Congress, 1870-1991. He has three children with his wife Carol Ann Johnson. His son, William L. Clay, Jr. now holds his former seat in Congress.