The overwhelmingly white Southern Baptist Convention, born of the split between North and South over slavery, apologized to blacks yesterday for condoning racism for much of its history.
The vote in favor of the resolution received a standing ovation from 20,000 members of the nation's largest Protestant denomination during their annual convention.
The resolution denounces racism, repudiates "historic acts of evil such as slavery" and asks for forgiveness. It commits the 15.6 million-member church to eradicating vestiges of racism and notes that the denomination failed to support the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s.
Gary L. Frost, the only black in the faith's leadership, accepted the apology on behalf of black Southern Baptists.
"We pray that the genuineness of your repentance will be reflected in your attitude and your actions," said Frost, a pastor from Youngstown, Ohio. He and the denomination's president, James B. Henry, embraced at the podium after the vote.
Supporters of the resolution hope it will open the door wider to evangelizing among blacks and other ethnic groups.
The Southern Baptist Convention was created in 1845 in a split with the American Baptist Convention over the question of whether slave owners could be missionaries. The resolution acknowledges that "many of our Southern Baptist forebears defended the right' to own slaves" and that in "later years the Southern Baptists failed, in many cases, to support, and in some cases opposed, legitimate initiatives to secure the civil rights of African-Americans."
In 1989, the denomination first declared racism a sin.
The apology resolution, which was approved overwhelmingly after only a few minutes' debate, states:
"We apologize to all African-Americans for condoning and-or perpetuating individual and systematic racism in our lifetime. . . .
"We ask for forgiveness from our African-American brothers and sisters, acknowledging that our own healing is at stake . . .
"We hereby commit ourselves to eradicate racism in all its forms from Southern Baptist life and ministry."
"I think it's an admirable resolution, and I would hope that it would not merely be a resolution that is on paper," said the Rev. Clifford Jones, president of the General Baptist Convention in North Carolina, a predominantly black Baptist denomination.
About 1,800 of the 39,910 churches in the Southern Baptist Convention are primarily black, said spokesman Herb Hollinger. He said there is no official count of black members. CAPTION: Ministers James B. Henry, right, and Gary Frost, pray after a Southern Baptist Convention vote to apologize for past racism.