Civil Rights Leader on Race, Religion and Politics The Rev. W. Sterling Cary is a former president of the National Council of Churches and one of the signatories of the 1966 Black Power statement by the National Committee of Negro Churchmen. Cary weighs in on the role of the church, race relations, and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Civil Rights Leader on Race, Religion and Politics

Civil Rights Leader on Race, Religion and Politics

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The Rev. W. Sterling Cary is a former president of the National Council of Churches and one of the signatories of the 1966 Black Power statement by the National Committee of Negro Churchmen. Cary weighs in on the role of the church, race relations, and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

MICHEL MARTIN, host: MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Now it's time for Wisdom Watch - conversations with some of our most respected elders to guide us through issues of the day. For that reason, we're speaking with the Reverend William Sterling Cary. A former president of the National Council of Churches, he was named on of Ebony Magazine's 100 most influential blacks in the U.S. He's one of the signatories to a statement on Black Power, forged by the National Committee of Negro Churchmen and published in the New York Times in July 1966. That document was meant to help reshape the conversation on race in America during the 1960s, and is considered one of the foundational documents of the so-called black liberation theology, a term that's resurfaced in recent weeks amid the controversy over comments by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, former Pastor of Trinity United Church where Barack Obama is a member. Reverend Cary, welcome to the program.

Reverend WILLIAM STERLING CARY (Former president, National Council of Churches): Thank you.

MARTIN: Was there a specific event that galvanized you and your fellow ministers to create that document in 1966? Can you just sort of take me back to what was going on then, and the conversations that you all were having that led to this piece?

Rev. CARY: Around 1966, when we gathered to write, the inspiration for us to get involved was America's reaction to the use of Stokely Carmichael's Black Power term. And with the American mind, black and power did not go together. There was a feeling that Stokely Carmichael's call for Black Power was undermining the non-violent effort of a Martin Luther King. We, as churchmen, recognized the need to be engaged in an effort to empower a people. The struggles that were present our communities were so much an overbearing and destructive type of reality that they had to be addressed.

And so, we felt it important to say that the will of God was that people be engaged in this struggle against the powers and principalities that were oppressing them, and that engagement in that struggle required the exertion of power.

MARTIN: When people use the term, black liberation theology - first of all, I wanted to ask do you trace that to this document and to the thinking of those of you who signed it? And what do you mean by that term?

Rev. CORY: I think the effort for liberation grew out of Latin America. What we may mean in this country - we were dealing black liberation in terms of the racial injustice that was a legacy of the slave period in American history. And that continues even to the present day. It was the liberation of the mind that the fact of segregation had imprisoned the mind, and our effort was an effort trying to get persons to recognize that God had created them as individuals of worth, of value, that they had contributions to make to society, and that no one, no one really, can make you inferior without your permission.

MARTIN: So it's your view that black liberation theology was mainly meant to be about African-Americans throwing off, kind of, the shackles of self hate, and it was never meant to be anti-white?

Rev. CORY: You're absolutely right.

MARTIN: The piece is in four parts. The first is to the leaders of America, and that section talks a lot about what you're just talking about is that there's a lot of anxiety and resentment about the term Black Power. And you're urging the leaders of the country to focus on what are the causes of the unrest that's already being seen in the cities. But I want to go to the section where it's to white churchmen, power and love.

You write from the place of pointing out that many of the churches that you lead were forged because African-Americans were forced out of some of the white churches, and that you say that as black men who were long ago forced out of the white church to create and to wield black power, we fail to understand the emotional quality of the outcry of some clergy against the use of the term today. It's not enough to answer that integration is the solution. It's precisely the nature of the operation of power under some forms of integration, which is being challenged.

And so I just wondered, why did you feel it was necessary to address your fellow clergymen directly? And I want to say clergymen because I bet at the time they probably were mostly men.

Rev. CARY: You're right. Well, the history of the church in America is related to the history of the nation in terms of its treatment of blacks that we were brought here as slaves. During slavery, blacks were not permitted to read the Bible. They were not permitted to learn how to read. They were not permitted to have worship services. They had to do all of this away from the "knowledge of the master," in quotes. The church, after slavery, refused to permit blacks to worship in white congregations. Many of them refused to have them worship. Others permitted them to worship, but they had to sit in a certain section of the church.

And this rejection by the church is what forced blacks to create black denominations, the AMEZI and AME. And we were trying to say to the church that the love that we know and God has made known through Christ is a love that affirms the humanity of every child created by God. And not to recognize that child's need for full freedom is a sin against God. And it was within this context, I think, without having the document in front of me, that I think the document was trying to address - the issue of love and justice.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. And we're speaking with the Reverend Sterling Cary about a statement he signed along with a number of other African-American church leaders in 1966.

You also address that Negro citizens - power and justice, and you talk about, you and your fellow signatories, sort of talk about the need for people of African descent to love themselves and to not be so sort of crippled by - kind of absorbed self hatred and anxiety about differences of opinion within the African-American community. And you also issue a charge to the mass media to tell the truth about conditions as they really are.

It's a provocative document in many ways. It's also a very loving document. You reiterate over and over again about how much you love the country and so forth. I just wondered, at the time that you were putting this together, did you think of it as being provocative? And what kind of reaction did you get?

Rev. CARY: Well, we were focused primarily, I think, on speaking to - at that time, contemporary injustice in American society, and felt called as the church, to make that voice a public voice. The response was positive. Many of us were invited to speak on television or on radio, newspapers, but I'm not sure its impact on contemporary reality - I think it's one thing to feel that a person - well, Obama's recent speech on race is a good example. It's one thing to indicate that that was a great speech. It's another thing, as a society, to tackle the injustices, which that speech was addressing, or was lifting up, and directing attention to.

So it's hard to evaluate the response of the country other than to say it was a polite response. There were many in the white community who thought that talk about black power was a rejection of white involvement in the black struggle for justice. We were really saying to our white brothers and sisters that there is a job to be done in the white community. There were many whites who had been very, very involved in black communities demanding justice. We were saying, let's do some of that in your white community as well as the black community.

MARTIN: This negative connotation of being kind of anti-white - what I'm hearing you say is that there's always been anxiety about the term Black Power and sort of the attendant black liberation theology arising from it. But I don't know - you can understand where the anxiety about Black Power comes from, but why this kind of negative feeling about kind of black liberation theology? Where do you think that comes from?

Rev. CARY: Well, maybe to illustrate the march on Washington, for instance, those who gave speeches there had to have their speeches approved prior to delivering them. The feeling was that getting that many folk together, and particularly black folk together, would lead to some type of rioting in the nation's capital. Just the fear of blacks feeling power was looked upon as a threat to the stability of white society.

It's interesting how America celebrates Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. It's significant that he was talking about having a dream. The country has no problem with your dreaming. But when Stokie Carmichael spoke the language of demand, or when Malcolm X spoke the language of demand, they were looked upon as militants - as threats to the stability of society. Now why that is so, I guess it would take a psychiatrist to analyze.

MARTIN: One statement in the piece caught my eye. It said that the power of white men is corrupted because it meets little meaningful resistance from negroes to temper it, and the conscious of black men is corrupted because having no power to implement the demands of conscious - the concern for justice is transmuted into a distorted form of love, which becomes chaotic self-surrender. Do you think that's still true?

Rev. CARY: To a degree, I think so. It's awfully hard for a white society to respond to black demands, and I think that's why we celebrated the non-violent efforts of the civil rights movement, because they were efforts that were appealing to the heart of white America, and hoping that transformation of that heart would lead to justice. But when you began to demand justice, then there's a stiffening of the back and an anxiety produced that generates further alienation and division.

And the assumption was that blacks needed to cooperate with the system by awaiting the system's time for their day of justice, for their day of full participation in the society.

MARTIN: Did you feel that way even after you were elected? Like for example, you were elected president of the National Council of Churches, and there's always been this sort of tension between certain individuals who attain sort of key positions of prominence, and then they say well gee, that doesn't necessarily mean that as a group that is a group to which I belong is achieving advancement and opportunity. But I wonder, again I think people would look at you, and say look at you.

I mean, you became head of a very significant interfaith organization with a lot of prominence in the society. Doesn't that mean something?

Rev. CARY: It means something, but I think as I stated in my acceptance speech, justice for a race is not the same as identifying it in an individual to be signaled out for an honorary position. That's no substitute for justice for the masses. And today, it's the same thing. There are individuals who have opportunities and yet within the black community, there's a - well during this economic period, there's intense suffering in terms of the need for health care, the need for decent housing, the need for adequate education.

And until the masses are able to participate fully in the life of society, the day of freedom is postponed.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News, and we're speaking with the Reverend Sterling Cary about a statement he signed along with a number of other African-American church leaders in 1966.

Here's something that - and I know that it's probably very painful to you, as I know it is for many of the members of the clergy, to hear kind of snippets of Reverend Jeremiah Wright's kind of sermons taken in pieces and played over and over again. But here is something I'd like to play from Senator Obama in his speech where he talked about - you know he was obviously criticized for his relationship and affiliation with Reverend Wright, and here's something he said in his speech. I'd like to play it just briefly.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It's that he spoke as if our society was static, as if no progress had been made, as if this country, a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black, Latino, Asian, rich, poor, young and old, is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.

MARTIN: So Reverend Cary, what do you think about that?

Rev. CARY: Well, I think that Reverend Wright is absolutely right, and I think the preface to the clip from his sermon that's been played on television and radio - the preface that's been left out is identifying needs and injustices of the current moment of history, not the ancient past. That Reverend Wright, I do not see as a relic of the ancient past but as a prophetic voice still urging the nation to take a step toward full justice for all of her people.

I don't think you get there by simply calling for goodwill. There has to be an identification of the problem to be addressed. There has to be a coming together to address that problem. There have to be solutions for people to feel that this indeed is the nation. It does not mean one does not love the nation, but one is desiring full participation in that nation's life. A participation that is not possible when one is forced to live life around the boundaries or in the margins.

MARTIN: How do you feel - it's been 40 years since you and your colleagues wrote that document, and how do you assess where we are today?

Rev. CARY: I think we've taken tremendous strides. This is a different world, and the world into which I was born and the world I grew up in, but it is still a world in need of perfection. There are all kinds of conditions that cry out for addressing by the nation, which are not being dealt with. So we celebrate the progress, but we recognize there is a long, long way for this nation to go if it's truly to be the land of the free and the home of the brave.

MARTIN: The Reverend Sterling Cary, a former president of the National Council of Churches. He was one of the signatories to a powerful statement by the National Committee of Negro Churchmen published in the New York Times in 1966. He joined us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Reverend Cary, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Rev. CARY: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More for NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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