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LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- Next month, the largest protestant denomination in the United States is expected to do something it has never done before: elect its first African American president.
In a special assignment report, WDRB's Lawrence Smith says the move comes as the Southern Baptist Convention looks to press beyond it's self-confessed history of racism.
The Southern Baptist Convention was born out of the conflict over slavery in 1845, right before the Civil War. Baptists in the north refused to appoint missionaries who owned slaves. Baptists in the south disagreed, supporting slave ownership.
"When the north won the day, Baptists in the south said we'll go our own way. And that is the founding moment of the Southern Baptist Convention," says Paul Chitwood with the Kentucky Baptist Convention.
And, to say the least, the Southern Baptist Convention has been struggling with race issues ever since.
"Baptists have a very mixed record about their racial attitudes. They were born in racism. And they have kind of become the church of the South," says Paul Simmons with the University of Louisville.
Chitwood says strides have been made toward bettering the future of the denomination. "Southern Baptists in more recent decades have tried to live down that history. I think we're certainly making tremendous progress over the course of, especially the last two decades."
In fact, during its 1995 convention, Southern Baptists officially apologized for their history of racism.
"The history of the Southern Baptist Convention is tied to the history of America. You just look at how America's been transformed on issues of race and race relations and the Southern Baptist Convention is very much a part of that. Now, that's to our shame in that we should have been leading where sometimes we were following," says Southern Seminary President Albert Mohler.
Still, the SBC has grown into the largest protestant denomination in America.
While the convention is working to expand its base, most of it 40,000 churches are still in the south and predominately white.
But now, the SBC is on the verge of a historic moment - electing its first African American president, Fred Luter, a New Orleans pastor long active in the denomination.
Chitwood says, "I think it's incredibly significant. It may be difficult in words to express the significance of it."
T. Vaughn Walker of First Gethsemane Baptist Church didn't think he'd live to see an African American president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
"I guess I would equate it to President Obama being elected President of the United States. I never thought I would see that in my lifetime. I'm delighted that it has occurred in both instances."
Walker is pastor of a predominately African American church that is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. In 1986, he also became The Southern Baptist Seminary's first full-time black faculty member.
Walker hopes Luter's election is a turning point for the SBC in terms of race relations.
"Everyone knows we've made advances. Praise God. But we haven't arrived yet. African Americans know that. And I hope Fred's election would at least put that back on the burner as a major issue that we as a Bible-believing, conservative, evangelical group sees as one of the big sins.
"My skepticism is strong." Paul Simmons is both a long-time Southern Baptist... and a long-time critic. "We've had nice resolutions since 1995. And African Americans still fare poorly among Southern Baptists as a whole. Some of our churches are nominally integrated."
But Baptist leaders point out that ethnic churches are among the fastest-growing in the SBC.
"The reality is that for many years minority churches have been the fastest-growing edge on the Southern Baptist Convention. They've been leading in the growth of the Southern Baptist Convention. But there's no downplaying the significance of the election of the president of the denomination," says Mohler.
And Kentucky's Southern Baptist leaders are optimistic that the election of an African American president is not the end of a process... but a beginning of the SBC taking leadership on issues of race.
"There is still much progress that needs to be made.This doesn't end anything. I think it's a huge step forward. But we have a lot of work still to do," says Chitwood.
And the first big test may come this fall, as President Obama seeks re-election. Obama is opposed by most conservative Southern Baptists, but is a source of pride in most African American churches, such as T. Vaughn Walker's First Gethsemane Baptist Church.
"On the social-political agenda we probably disagree with a number of the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention. Is the convention big enough to allow everybody to stay at home and still work together as brothers and sisters in the Lord? That is what I hope Fred's election says. That we are big enough to do that."