Rev. W. Sterling Cary, Pioneering Black Churchman, Dies at 94

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The Rev. Dr. W. Sterling Cary, who boldly joined other Black religious leaders in 1966 in seeking to reconcile nonviolence and demands for Black Power, and who was later elected the first Black president of the National Council of Churches, died on Sunday at his home in Flossmoor, a Chicago suburb. He was 94.

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

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

“For me the symbolic victories don’t mean very much,” he told The New York Times in 1972. “A Black is elected to Congress or mayor of a city that’s almost dead. That’s empowering 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 Negro Churchmen. In the July 31 edition of The New York Times, the committee took out an advertisement that embraced the demands for Black Power being proclaimed by Stokely Carmichael, the newly minted national chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and his disciples, which many white clerics and mainstream civil rights leaders were condemning as anti-American and anti-Christian.

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

While they emphasized that they did not see power as a quest for either isolation or domination, their statement condemned American officials who “tie a white noose of suburbia around the necks” of Black people, relegating them to joblessness and dilapidated and still-segregated schools and leaving them unprotected by laws against discrimination that went unenforced.

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

What became known as Black liberation theology echoed decades later, when Barack Obama ran for president in 2008 and was asked whether he shared the views of his own minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, an apostle of that 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 toward full justice for all of her people.”

William Sterling Cary was born on Aug. 10, 1927, in Plainfield, N.J., one of eight children of Andrew Jackson Cary, a real estate broker and Y.M.C.A. administrator, and Sadie (Walker) Cary, a homemaker.

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

Concluding that he would be more comfortable in an all-Black school, he decided to enroll in Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Ordained in the Baptist Church in 1948, he was elected student body president at Morehouse that same year and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1949. He enrolled in Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, where his fellow students elected him the first Black class president. He graduated with a master’s degree in divinity in 1952.

He later served in Presbyterian and United Church of Christ congregations, including as the pastor of Butler Memorial Presbyterian Church in Youngstown, Ohio. For three years he ministered to the interracial, interdenominational Church of the Open Door in Brooklyn.

Mr. Cary was the pastor of Grace Congregational Church from 1958 until 1968, when he was named administrator of the metropolitan New York district of the United Church of Christ. In that position, he oversaw some 100 congregations with more than 50,000 parishioners.

He was 45 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 Cary family

In 1994, he was elected conference minister of the Illinois conference of the United Church of Christ. The first Black person to serve in that role, he oversaw some 250 churches until he retired in 1994.

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

In his 2008 NPR interview, Mr. Cary said the United States had made “tremendous strides” toward racial justice, but he added a caveat.

“This is a different world than the world into which I was born and the world I grew up in, but it is still a world in need of perfection,” he said. “There are all kinds of conditions that cry out for addressing by the nation.”

He said he was struck by how Americans celebrate the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech.

“It’s significant that he was talking about having a dream,” Mr. Cary said. “The country has no problem with your dreaming. But when Stokely 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.”

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