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Rev. Dr. William Sterling Cary, who was the first Black president elected by the National Council of Churches, died on November 14, 2021 at the age of 94. He served from 1972 to 1975.

An Associated Press article this week shared details of his life, noting that in 1974 he was the first Black person named an United Church of Christ (UCC) conference minister. He continued to lead the the Illinois Conference, UCC’s third-largest conference with nearly 250 churches, until retirement in 1994.

According to the article, in 1966, Dr. Cary was among dozens of Black pastors who published a searing letter titled “Black Power.” in the New York Times calling out white clergy and others on American race relations and outlining steps for change, stating, “We, an informal group of Negro churchmen in America are deeply disturbed about the crisis brought upon our country by historic distortions of important human realities in the controversy about ‘black power.’ What we see, shining through the variety of rhetoric is not anything new but the same old problems of power and race which has faced our beloved country since 1619.” 

During a NPR interview in 2008, Dr. Cary explained that it was intended as a loving and reconciling document, “The love that we know has been made known by Christ,” he told the NPR interviewer. “Not to allow freedom is a sin against God.”

“We as churchmen recognized the need to become engaged in efforts to empower people,” Dr. Cary told NPR. “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. Racial injustice is a legacy of the slave period and continues until this day.”

During the interview, he noted the challenges when he led the NCC, “It was a tense period when I was president. We had Vietnam, we had tensions over Gay, Lesbian and transgendered people.” Arguments on the floor of the NCC Governing Board were intense and often angry.”

However, Dr. Cary believed that his presiding style encouraged more civil debate, “There was a tendency for our discussions to turn into dissentions … but we created a climate where we could give everyone a hearing – we created an arena in which we could express our differences. Everyone had a say.”

NCC’s current President and General Secretary, Jim Winkler, said, “We give thanks for the life of Sterling Cary and his leadership of the NCC. We celebrate the fact he was the first Black president of our Council.”