Black Church pioneer Reverend W. Sterling Cary dies at 94

The Reverend Dr W. Sterling Cary, who boldly joined with other black religious leaders in 1966 in an attempt to reconcile nonviolence with the demands of black power, and who was subsequently elected the first black president of the National Council of churches, died Sunday at his home in Flossmoor, a Chicago suburb. He was 94 years old.

The cause was heart failure, her daughter Yvonne Cary Carter said.

Mr. Cary was unanimously elected by the broadly liberal National Council of Churches, the largest ecumenical body in the United States, in December 1972. He served until 1975. His election set a precedent which he expressed hope that it would go beyond the symbolism of the 1960s.

“To me symbolic victories don’t mean much,” he told the New York Times in 1972. “A black man is elected to Congress or mayor of a city that is almost dead. It is to empower an individual, not a people.

Mr. Cary was the pastor of Grace Congregational Church in Harlem in 1966 when he helped organize the Ad Hoc National Committee of Black Clergymen. In the July 31 edition of the New York Times, the committee released an advertisement that embraced Black Power demands proclaimed by Stokely Carmichael, the new national chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and his followers, whom many white clerics and major civil rights leaders condemned it as anti-American and anti-Christian.

“What we see shining through the variety of rhetoric is not new, but the same old problem of power and race that our beloved country has faced since 1619,” the clergymen wrote, referring to the year black slaves were first imported into what has become the United States.

While they stressed that they did not view power as a quest for isolation or domination, their statement condemned US officials who “tie a white suburban noose around the neck” of blacks, relegating them to unemployment. and in dilapidated and still segregated schools. and leaving them unprotected by unenforced discrimination laws.

Mr. Cary would later reflect that the interracial coalition that advanced civil rights in the 1960s imploded when the movement began to challenge racial inequalities in the North.

What has come to be known as black liberation theology echoed decades later, when Barack Obama ran for president in 2008 and was asked if he shared his views. own minister, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, an apostle of this theology. In an interview with NPR that year, Mr. Cary described Mr. Wright as “a prophetic voice still urging the nation to take a step towards complete justice for all of its people.”

William Sterling Cary was born August 10, 1927 in Plainfield, NJ, one of eight children of Andrew Jackson Cary, real estate broker and YMCA administrator, and Sadie (Walker) Cary, housewife.

He ran for president of his predominantly white high school student body and believed he won by an overwhelming majority. But the dean informed him that, according to the official results, he had been beaten.

Concluding that he would be more comfortable in an all-black school, he decides to enroll at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Ordained into the Baptist Church in 1948, he was elected student body president at Morehouse the same year and graduated in 1949. He enrolled at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, where his comrades elected him first. president of the black class. He obtained a master’s degree in divinity in 1952.

He then served in the Presbyterian and United Church of Christ congregations, most notably as pastor of the Butler Memorial Presbyterian Church in Youngstown, Ohio. For three years he ministered to the Interracial and Interdomination Open Door Church in Brooklyn.

Mr. Cary was pastor of Grace Congregational Church from 1958 to 1968, when he was appointed administrator of the New York Metropolitan District of The United Church of Christ. In this position he oversaw over 100 congregations with over 50,000 parishioners.

He was 45 years old and living in Hollis, Queens when he was elected president of the National Council of Churches. At the time, Ebony magazine named him one of the most influential African Americans in the United States.

Credit…via the Cary family

In 1994, he was elected minister of the Illinois conference of the United Church of Christ. The first black person to hold this position, he oversaw some 250 churches until his retirement in 1994.

Besides his daughter Yvonne, he is survived by his wife, Marie Belle (Phillips) Cary; two other daughters, Denise and Patricia Cary; one son, W. Sterling Jr .; two grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

In his interview with NPR in 2008, Mr. Cary said the United States had made “huge strides” towards racial justice, but added a caveat.

“It’s a different world from the world I was born in and the world I grew up in, but it’s still a world that needs perfection,” he said. “There are all kinds of conditions that need to be dealt with by the nation. “

He said he was struck by the way Americans celebrated Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech.

“It is significant that he was talking about having a dream,” Cary said. “The country has no problem with your dreams. But when Stokely Carmichael spoke the language of demand, or when Malcolm X spoke the language of demand, they were seen as activists – as threats to the stability of society. Now, why this is so, I guess it would take a psychiatrist to analyze it.

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