SBC Life Articles

Ethnic Participation in Convention Ministry: A Historical Perspective on the Election of Fred Luter

Fred Luter’s election as SBC president illustrated the wisdom of a 2011 Executive Committee recommendation adopted by the Convention that “workers and leaders from all ethnic backgrounds . . . involve themselves to the highest level possible in associational life and through state convention ministries” so that “leadership in the Convention will naturally follow.”

After all, Luter served in leadership of the New Orleans Baptist Association and the Louisiana Baptist Convention en route to becoming the SBC’s first African American president. He was associational moderator from 2005 to 2006, an LBC executive board member from 1992 to 1998, and the LBC annual meeting preacher in 2006.

But many may not realize that dozens of Baptists from ethnic minority groups travelled similar paths before Luter, preparing the way for a black Convention president as they fought against prejudice to involve themselves in denominational life. Because of their efforts, the Convention that did not include a single African American church in the early twentieth century came to be called the most diverse religious denomination in America in 1970 by church growth expert C. Peter Wagner.

Some of the earliest racial barrier breaking occurred in the six SBC seminaries. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, began teaching black students on its campus in 1942 in a “Negro Extension Department.” Initially, they received instruction from professors and graduate students in vacant faculty offices since a Kentucky law prohibited educational institutions from teaching both white and African American students as pupils.

Garland Offutt earned the number of credits necessary for the master of theology, and the faculty granted him a degree in 1944, making him the first black graduate of any Southern Baptist seminary. During the mid-1940s, Southern began allowing black students to sit in classrooms with white students in violation of state law. The seminary officially admitted black students in 1951.

As president Duke McCall explained, “We decided to ignore the law. We thought we had moral ground—and probably the legal ground as well—to ignore it.”

Theology professor Wayne Ward recalled an incident when a police officer arrived at his class to issue a warning about violating the law. When the officer showed some hesitation to enter the class, Ward told him God would punish him if he arrested anyone.

In 1961, Southern hosted civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. on campus—a move that drew letters of complaint for three years and threatened McCall’s job security. By 1980, so many African American students enrolled that black Baptists began referring to Southern as the “largest black seminary in the country.”

Similarly, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary began offering night classes for black preachers on its campus in 1942. By 1955, the first two African American graduates of the seminary earned their degrees. Minority enrollment swelled through the 1980s, and the large number of students from the historically black National Baptist Convention led to the formation of a National Baptist Student Fellowship on campus.

The other four SBC seminaries also integrated in the 1940s and 1950s, well before it was required by law. In 1968, Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, California, claimed it had more black students than any other seminary on the west coast and more foreign students than all other west coast seminaries combined.

When civil rights activists scheduled a historic march in Selma, Alabama, Golden Gate students and faculty donated funds to help one student attend. In the same vein, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri, proudly claimed civil rights leader Charles Briscoe as one of its graduates.

T. Vaughn Walker became the first African American professor at any SBC seminary when Southern hired him in 1986. Golden Gate followed suit the following year by hiring Leroy Gainey. According to one historian, three seminary presidents asked black Southern Baptist leader Gary Frost to provide them with lists of African Americans who were qualified to serve as professors.

From the seminaries, ethnic minorities funneled into positions of Convention leadership. More than twenty African Americans were elected state convention presidents in the final decades of the twentieth century. The first was Herbert Cotton in Alaska, elected in 1972.

Yet, state convention leadership was not limited to African Americans. Presidents, vice presidents, and staff members have represented a diverse array of ethnic minority groups, including Hispanics, Chinese, Native Americans, Japanese, Filipinos, Koreans, and more.

Among minorities to be elected SBC vice presidents are Luter, Frost, and E. W. McCall. According to Sid Smith, the late black Southern Baptist leader, some SBC conservatives hoped to have Billy Graham nominate the popular African American preacher E. V. Hill for a Convention vice presidential slot in 1981. The plan was called off only when it was learned that Hill, although a frequent preacher at SBC gatherings, was not pastor of a Southern Baptist church.

Still, Smith believed the episode illustrated how popular an African American leader could become among Southern Baptists. He said Hill “could have been the first African American president of the Southern Baptist Convention.”

Along with Hill, black preachers S. M. Lockeridge, Thomas Kilgore, J. Alfred Smith, Henry Mitchell, Manuel Scott, and others became favorite speakers at Southern Baptist conferences and events. As early as 1960, a Convention leader urged Southern Baptists to include African Americans on their annual meeting programs.

All told, the impact of minorities on SBC life was significant in the late twentieth century. Between 1980 and 1991, congregations speaking a language other than English increased by 162 percent, baptisms among those churches increased by more than 12,000, and total membership increased by more than 200,000.

Of course, the Convention was far from perfect in its involvement of ethnic minorities. In 1993, only thirty-two (3.26 percent) of the denomination’s 982 total committee, commission, and board members were ethnic minorities. The greatest number of ethnic members on any board was five at both the Home Mission Board and the American Seminary Commission, and ten boards had no ethnic members.

But there were stirrings of change. Convention leaders, long aware of the disparity between white and ethnic leadership in the SBC, were working to address this leadership gap.

For example, when Richard Land was interviewed as the prospective executive director of the Christian Life Commission in 1988, he emphasized that race relations would be a key issue for his administration. The next year, he called on Southern Baptists “to urge their agencies and institutions to seek diligently to bring about greater African American representation at every level of Southern Baptist institutional life.”

A multi-ethnic advisory study group appointed in 1992 by Convention president Ed Young recommended that ethnic minorities be added to the annual meeting program and to every board, committee, and commission. It also urged the formation of an “Ethnic and Black Task Force” to help formulate a strategy to involve Southern Baptists of all races in carrying out the Great Commission.

If this year’s annual meeting is any indication, Southern Baptists are making progress on the study group’s recommendations. The 2012 Executive Committee report featured testimonies from African American missionaries to Brazil and Vietnamese church planters in Los Angeles. And with Luter’s election, the opportunity is ripe for greater ethnic involvement than ever.

“If we stop appointing African Americans or Asians or Hispanics to leadership roles in this Convention after my term is over, we failed,” Luter said at a press conference following his election. He added, “This was a genuine, authentic move by this Convention that says our doors are open, and the only way [the world] can see that is not just putting up an African American president, but seeing other ethnic groups in other areas of this Convention. Time will tell, and I’ll be a cheerleader promoting that.”


Twenty-Two State/Regional Conventions have Elected Non-Anglos to serve as State Convention Presidents

The following is a list of non-Anglos who have served as president of their state Baptist conventions1

Alaska Baptist Convention
Herbert Cotton (African American), 1972-1974
William Lyons (African American), 1978-1980
Leon May (African American), 2002-2004

Arizona Southern Baptist Convention
Jim Loui (Chinese American), 2008-2010

California Southern Baptist Convention
Willie T. Gaines (African American), 1985-1986
Ray Jones (African American), 1997

Florida Baptist Convention
Elroy Barber (African American), 1998-1999

Hawaii Pacific Baptist Convention
Moriyoshi Hiratani (Japanese American), 1959-1961, 1969-1971
Dan H. Kong (Chinese American), 1964-1966, 1971-1973
Dan Liu (Chinese American), 1968-1969
Allen Au (Chinese American), 1973-1975
Raymond Lau (Chinese American), 1977-1979
Paul Kaneshiro (Japanese American), 1995-1997
George Iwahiro (Japanese American), 2001-2003
Ken Sakai (Japanese American), 2005-2007
Robert Miller (Hawaiian American), 2008-2010
Walt Agena (Japanese American), 2010-Present

Illinois Baptist State Association
Donald Sharp (African American), 1983-1984, 2004-2005
Eugene L. Gibson Sr. (African American), 1997

Baptist Convention of Iowa
Ted Keys (African American), 2009-2011

Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware
James Dixon (African American), 2001-2002
Byron Day (African American), 2009-2010

Baptist State Convention of Michigan
Rochelle Davis (African American), 1986-1987
Robert Coverson (African American), 2003-2004
Roscoe Belton (African American), 2011-2012

Baptist Convention of New England
Paul Kim (Korean American), 2006-2008

Baptist Convention of New Mexico
Frank Zamora (Hispanic), 1993-1994
Joe Bunce (Hispanic), 1998-2000

Baptist Convention of New York
Samuel Simpson (Jamaican), 1986-1088; 1994-1996
Jerry Lepasana (Filipino), 2002-2004
Milton Kornegay (African American), 2004-2006

Baptist State Convention of North Carolina
Michael Cummings (Native American), 1999-2001

State Convention of Baptists in Ohio
Gary Frost (African American), 1990-1992
David Gray (African American), 2006-2008

Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma
Emerson Falls (Native American), 2008-2010

Baptist Convention of Pennsylvania/South Jersey
William Johnson (African American), 1992-1993
K. Marshall Williams (African American), 2007-2008
Peter Yanes (Filipino), 2009-2010

Convention of Southern Baptist Churches in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands
Ernesto R. Pereira (Hispanic), 2001-2007
Miguel A. Soto (Hispanic), 2007-2009
Angel Colón (Hispanic), 2009-2010
Jorge Alvarez (Hispanic), 2010-2012

Baptist General Convention of Texas
Albert Reyes (Hispanic), 2005
Michael Bell (African American), 2006
Victor Rodriguez (Hispanic), 2011

Southern Baptists of Texas Convention
Rudy Hernandez (Hispanic), 2000-2001
Terry Turner (African American), 2011-2012

Utah/Idaho Southern Baptist Convention
Paul Rodriguez (Hispanic), 1992-1993

Baptist General Association of Virginia
Mark Croston (African American), 2011-Present

The District of Columbia Baptist Convention, a multi-aligned state convention
Kendrick Curry (African American), 2011-Present
Curry was preceded by a succession of other non-Anglo presidents, not all of whom serve as pastor of churches that cooperate with the SBC.

1The state and regional conventions were contacted by e-mail requesting the information in this chart.