I HAVE A DREAM, said Martin Luther King in 1963, that someday “on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” King was a prodigious dreamer, but even he might have found it hard to imagine that thousands of those listening to him that day would live to see a black pastor elected — unanimously and enthusiastically — to lead the Southern Baptist Convention.
It was in Georgia before the Civil War that the Southern Baptist Convention had been born, in large part to ensure that black and white would never sit down together, at the table of brotherhood or anywhere else. Beginning in 1845 as a breakaway from the anti-slavery Baptist churches in the North, the Southern Baptist Convention would grow into the nation’s foremost Protestant denomination — and one of its most racist.
Well into the second half of the 20th century, Southern Baptist preachers defended Jim Crow and preached white supremacy. In a notorious 1956 address, the renowned Dallas pastor W.A. Criswell condemned the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education as “idiocy.” After he was elected SBC president in 1968 Criswell renounced segregation. But most Southern Baptist churches remained all-white, and it wasn’t until 1995 that the denomination publicly resolved to “unwaveringly denounce racism, in all its forms, as deplorable sin” and to “apologize to all African-Americans for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime.”
Last week, a gifted and charismatic black minister from New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, the Rev. Fred Luter Jr., was chosen by acclamation to lead the Southern Baptist Convention. Luter is not the first African-American to head a largely white Christian denomination in the United States — the Rev. Geoffrey Black has been president of the United Church of Christ since 2009, for example — but he is the first to head a church that was founded in support of African bondage and white racism.
To borrow an analogy suggested by Luke Hill, a blogger for the Catholic journal Commonweal, imagine that the First Vatican Council had solemnly pronounced Slavs inferior beings condemned by God to lives of servitude. Then imagine such a Catholic Church, with its long history of anti-Slavic bigotry, electing Karol Wojtyla as the first Polish pope. That is roughly what the Southern Baptist Convention has done in elevating Luter to its presidency. A renowned Southern Baptist theologian describes Luter’s election, with good reason, as “the most significant event to happen in our history since our formation.”
It is certainly a big deal for Baptists. But for most Americans, what could be more unexceptional than the disappearance of racism as a significant bar to black achievement?
We live at a time, after all, when a black president lives in the White House and a black justice sits on the Supreme Court. When the success of black supermodels and Fortune 500 CEOs is taken for granted. When celebrity magazines and websites routinely chronicle the lives of black athletes, entertainers, and movie stars. America today is nothing like it was in 1963, when King could only dream of black civil equality and the death of Jim Crow. The pervasive racism he confronted is primarily a historical memory now, while King himself is in the American pantheon.
Yet there are still those who insist that America is steeped in white racism -- who even now can look at American public life and see anti-black animus everywhere.
“Over the course of the Obama presidency,” writes The Atlantic’s senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates, “I have become convinced that no single force exerts a greater pull on his presidency than white racism.” He has no intention of putting away the race card. “I can only stop talking about racism when it ceases to be a significant force in our politics.”
Ah, but racism has ceased to be a significant force in our politics, as it has ceased to be a significant force in American life generally. Racist comments can occasionally be heard, of course, and there are always exploiters of white guilt to milk them for all they’re worth. But as thousands of delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting, emotionally cheering their new black president, have just demonstrated afresh, America’s racist past is dead and gone.