Almost a quarter century after a Southern Baptist Convention agency board member called Martin Luther King Jr. a fraud and said apartheid was “beneficial,” the SBC may well elect its first African-American president: Fred Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans.
So far, he is the only declared candidate.

“It’s a very good thing,” Bill Leonard, professor of church history at Wake Forest University, told the Tennessean. “It’s a powerful symbol. And it’s a long time coming.”

Indeed, Luter’s election would be a good symbol for Southern Baptists, and one that other Baptists ought to applaud, one that will salute.

Symbolism has the potential to shift perception and sometimes it can tilt reality. But symbolism also has the capacity to make folk feel good about themselves without ever changing anything.

When white and black Baptist pastors once had pulpit swaps, the symbolism of racial reconciliation was encouraging and positive.

When the white power structure in the pews of those Baptist churches sought to maintain economic privilege and preserve racial inequality, then the symbolism of pulpit swaps was often of little earthly good.

The annual integrated worship service failed to meaningfully change the immediate community.

Symbolism ought never be confused with immediate, substantive transformation. Casting a single ballot is not the same thing as denominational reformation.

Speaking at the 2009 New Baptist Covenant meeting in Norman, Okla., African-American Baptist pastor Dwight McKissic recalled touring the SBC building in Nashville before a meeting of the denomination’s executive committee.

“I didn’t happen to see African-Americans anywhere in the building among the employees…I asked the tour guide, one of the vice presidents, I said, ‘Name the highest ranking African-American in this facility and if time permits I would like to meet that person,'” said McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas

“He paused to think about it,” said McKissic. “He told me the highest ranking person employed at that facility was the head custodian.”

McKissic rhetorically asked, “[H]ow can you justify not one executive position in Southern Baptist life, not one entity head?”

He told the audience that the lack of representative leadership was “encoded racism,” picking up on a point made in’s documentary, BeneaththeSkin: BaptistsandRacism, which had been shown earlier at the meeting.

If encoded racism manifests itself in the lack of staff leadership, then enabling racism appears in the SBC leadership’s refusal to challenge the Birther claim that seeks to disqualify President Obama as a natural-born citizen, and the tortuous claim that he is not an authentic Christian.

To be silent about attempts to smear the first African-American president is to wink to the racists that it’s OK to play the race card.

When SBC leadership supports the actions of Southern Baptist governors in Alabama and Georgia to make the lives of undocumented immigrants unbearable, they are enabling racism.

If Luter is elected an SBC president, it will be a symbolic event for a denomination born as a slave-holding body and one that resisted the civil rights movement.

One wonders if the white SBC power structure will hide behind that symbolism, maintaining the status quo that refuses to challenge either the body’s encoded racism or its enabling racism.

One thing is for sure. Those of us outside the SBC camp don’t have to read from the same version of the Bible to share with some SBC leaders a common vision in the Bible for racial reconciliation and justice.

RobertParham is executive editor of and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1.

Visit BeneaththeSkin: BaptistsandRacism to learn more about’s award-winning documentary.

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