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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP) -- Several thousand Southern Baptist pastors, church workers, laymen and their wives, most of them elected representatives ("messengers") from their local churches, witnessed history being made June 19 in New Orleans.
With overwhelming affirmation, sustained applause and no verbal opposition, Fred Luter Jr., pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, was elected as the first African American president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
As Martin Luther King Jr. said, paraphrasing the abolitionist Theodore Parker, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Those in attendance at the SBC's annual session witnessed a significant bend toward that justice.
The Southern Baptist Convention was born in 1845 over the slavery controversy (the refusal of the national convention of Baptists to appoint a slaveholder as a missionary to Native Americans) and in large measure was defensive of Jim Crow and segregation through at least the middle of the 20th century.
The convention has now gone from being virtually an all-white domination as late as 1970 to being one of the most ethnically diverse denominations. Nearly 19 percent of Southern Baptists are non-Anglo. Of the approximately 45,000 local congregations of Southern Baptists in the United States, more than 3,500 are now African American. Thousands of others are Hispanic-American, Asian-American and Native American. In fact, virtually all growth in Southern Baptist membership in the last decade has been ethnic.
A tremendously significant step was taken at the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention when, in 1995, the convention passed a resolution apologizing to African Americans for having supported slavery and racism and asked for the forgiveness of their African American brothers and sisters. The convention had passed numerous resolutions between 1946 and 1995 condemning racism, but had never accepted responsibility for its own participation in the evil of human bondage and racial discrimination.
This apology led to a significant upsurge in African Americans feeling welcome in the Southern Baptist Convention. Fred Luter's election as president (not an honorific office, but a position of substantial power) is another giant step in the Southern Baptist Convention achieving its stated goal of having a membership that reflects the demographic makeup of the country.
Millions of Southern Baptists of every ethnicity are praying that God will use them and their convention to lead the way to the fulfillment of Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of a nation where people "will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
Richard Land is president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. This article first appeared at The Washington Post's Guest Voices blog. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).