In one of the most historic meetings in the Southern Baptist Convention’s 167-year history, messengers meeting June 19-20 elected the body’s first African American president.

The occasion in New Orleans brought media from across the nation to see the election of Fred Luter, a descendent of slaves, who now is the president of a convention whose founders, in 1845, defended slavery.

The Convention officially repented of its racist past at the 1995 meeting and has seen the percentage of non-white churches grow, from 5 percent of the SBC in 1990 to 19 percent in 2010. Last year, messengers approved a report encouraging greater ethnic diversity in committee appointments.

Luter, who was unopposed, told media at a news conference that he sees his election as being a turning point for blacks and other ethnic groups.

“Here is a Convention that has been talking this racial reconciliation thing and now they’re putting their money where their mouth is,” said Luter, pastor of New Orleans’ Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, whose building was flooded after Hurricane Katrina but has been rebuilt into a mega-church amid the city’s much-reduced population.

Luter called his election “a genuine, authentic move by this Convention that says our doors are open.” He also said he hopes to see minorities elected and promoted to other positions within the Convention. “I’ll be a cheerleader promoting that.”

Most of the 7,900 registered messengers attending the annual meeting—plus family members and several dozen media representatives—were in a packed convention hall when Luter was elected. New Orleans pastor David Crosby nominated Luter. SBC recording secretary John Yeats cast the Convention’s official ballot.

“It is my high honor to cast this historic ballot of the Convention for Dr. Fred Luter as president of the Southern Baptist Convention,” Yeats said before adding, “Hallelujah!”

Yeats’ expression seemed appropriate for a historic day, and messengers responded with an emotional seventy-second standing ovation. With cameras flashing as Luter walked to the podium, he pointed heavenward and, while wiping away tears, said simply, “To God be the glory for the things that He has done.” Outgoing SBC President Bryant Wright then put his arm around Luter and prayed for him.

Luter’s election came with a historical coincidence: he was elected on June 19, or “Juneteenth,” a yearly date on which many African Americans celebrate the emancipation of slaves. His election also came as Americans commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

“This is not just an Anglo Convention,” Luther told media members. “. . . I’m Exhibit A that this Convention is serious about saying that our doors are open to everyone. I hope to be a spokesperson to that, because let’s face it: there are some African Americans, maybe Asians or Hispanics who for years felt that they were not welcome in the Southern Baptist Convention. That’s not the case anymore.”

Due to failing health, Luter’s mother, Viola Brooks, was not able to attend Luter’s nomination and election, but she was able to watch via the Internet. She died eight days later.

“She was excited; she told me she cried,” Luter said. “I went to see her the next day in between sessions, and she just told me how proud she was of me. She always did say that, though. She always did.”

When Luter would visit his mother, he said she greeted him with, “Well, look at my pastor.”

“But that day, when I came in, she said, ‘Well, look at my president,’” he said. “So it was pretty neat.”

Two days prior to Luter’s election, several hundred Southern Baptist messengers visiting New Orleans—most of them white—attended Luter’s church, wanting to see him and the congregation he had helped rebuild. At the close of the second service, Luter called on Jimmy Draper, former president of LifeWay Christian Resources, to pray. Prior to his prayer Draper addressed Franklin Avenue church members, referencing Luter’s pending election and telling them to applause, “This is not tokenism. . . . We’re electing a great leader who happens to be black.”

The Convention has taken strides to reach out to ethnic groups, including the establishment of a Hispanic Advisory Council and an African American Advisory Council by the Executive Committee and NAMB. Last year’s ethnic diversity report cited the “need to be proactive and intentional in the inclusion of individuals from all ethnic and racial identities within Southern Baptist life.”

Luter told the media he wants to see the Convention become even more diverse during his presidency. He also said he wants to spotlight evangelism and missions and help bring together factions within the convention.

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  • Michael Foust and Frank Michael McCormack