The Rev. Fred Luter, a New Orleans pastor, stands unopposed for the office at the annual convention.
NEW ORLEANS - The Southern Baptist Convention, a denomination born in 1845 in defense of slavery and a spiritual home to white supremacists for much of the 20th century, is poised to elect its first black president.
The Rev. Fred Luter Jr., 55, a New Orleans pastor who got his start preaching on the streets of the Lower Ninth Ward, is expected to be the only candidate for office Tuesday when Southern Baptists gather here for their annual meeting.
"That I can be president of the largest Protestant denomination in the country is unbelievable," Luter said in an interview last week after one of his trademark cadenced sermons that drew "amens" from the predominantly black congregation.
His anticipated victory is being hailed as a milestone by white and black pastors alike in the convention, a grouping of 51,000 congregations with 16 million members, about 1 million of them black. Acutely aware of the nation's changing demographics, the fiercely evangelical Southern Baptists have been working to draw in more black, Hispanic and Asian members, often by starting new churches in ethnically diverse urban areas in the country.
If, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said of the nation's churches, Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America, the Southern Baptists have carried a special burden, giving added resonance to this week's election.
"Given the history of the convention, this is absolutely stunning," said Michael O. Emerson, an expert on race and religion at Rice University.
Luter shares the Baptists' firm rejection of abortion and same-sex marriage, but he preaches more about personal salvation than politics. Though he never completed seminary training, he is renowned for his rapid-fire sermons filled with wordplay and hypnotic repetition.
He has also impressed convention leaders by building what had been a dying congregation, Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, into one of the state's largest churches -- and then rebuilding it after 2005, when Hurricane Katrina flooded the church in the low-income St. Roch neighborhood and sent most of its 8,000 members fleeing to other states.
Luter hopes he can give minority recruitment goals a boost during his two-year term.
"I want to carry that torch," he said. "When I go to evangelical conferences, I'll be Exhibit A."
But he is well aware that many black evangelicals remain skeptical of the Southern Baptists, preferring to remain in separate associations like the largely black National Baptist Convention U.S.A., which has 7.5 million members. Southern Baptist leaders acknowledge having a lot to answer for. "We were a segregated, virtually all-white denomination as late as the 1960s," said Richard Land, president of the convention's policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
Land is the convention's most prominent public face. He has been known for seeking racial reconciliation and was one of the authors of a resolution, adopted by the convention in 1995, that apologized for "historic acts of evil such as slavery."
But an incident this spring showed the lurking potential for racial misunderstandings. Many blacks were outraged when Land accused President Obama of trying to capitalize politically on the Trayvon Martin killing in Florida, called the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton "race hustlers," and suggested that racial profiling was justified.
In the end he apologized and was sharply reprimanded by the church. Luter, who worked with Land on the convention's 1995 apology, called the comments an unfortunate aberration but said he hoped Land would stay on.
His first priorities as president, Luter said, will be the traditional Baptist goals of evangelizing, serving believers and providing disaster relief. But he also pledged to use his power of appointments to get more minorities on the governing boards.