Southern Baptists Elect First Black President

The Rev. Fred Luter Jr. was elected the president of the religious denomination, the largest protestant congregation in the country, that seeks to distance itself from a racially intolerant past.

Posted: 06/19/2012 04:58 PM EDT
The Rev. Fred Luter Jr.

The Rev. Fred Luter Jr. was officially elected as the first Black president of the Southern Baptist Convention, a religious denomination that has a long history defending slavery and served as a spiritual haven for white supremacists during a good deal of the 20th century.

Luter’s election had been expected for much of the last week. And the prospect of his election as president of the largest Protestant denomination in the United States has been hailed by clergy of all races as a sign of bold progress in the world of American Protestantism.

A native of New Orleans, Luter received thunderous applause after he was elected from thousands of members of the Southern Baptist Convention who attended the group’s annual meeting in New Orleans.

The city is home to the church Luter rebuilt into the denomination’s largest congregation in Louisiana. He began rebuilding the church in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The election came just weeks after officials of the congregation said race relations within the denomination, whose founding has ties to slavery, had suffered due to racially charged remarks made by the group's longtime ethics chief.

Richard Land, the president of the denomination’s ethics and religious liberty commission, was reprimanded earlier this month for accusing African-American leaders for what he characterized as using the killing of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old Florida high school student, by a  neighborhood watch volunteer for political gain.

Luter, who is 55, has already served as the first African-American in several leadership positions within the convention, including its first vice president during the past year.

Leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention said Luter's election represented an important statement about the denomination's efforts to distance itself from its racist past. The convention was founded in 1845 after Southern Baptists split from the First Baptist Church in America in the pre-Civil War days over slave ownership.

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(Photo: Times-Picayune/Landov)