Rev. Cary was ordained in the Baptist church but approached his ministry with an ecumenical vision, one in which denomination mattered less than devotion to the cause of uplifting the poor and the oppressed.
He became nationally known in 1972, when he was installed as president of the organization formally known as the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, the largest ecumenical assembly in the country. Ebony magazine named him one of the most influential African Americans in the United States.
Rev. Cary had long been at the forefront of efforts to harness the power of churches to advance civil rights. In 1966, he was one of dozens of African American ministers who signed a statement published in the New York Times on the topic of Black power, a term that had been recently introduced by activist Stokely Carmichael and one that had ushered in a new era in the movement for civil rights.
“With the American mind,” Rev. Cary told NPR years later, “‘black’ and ‘power’ did not go together.”
In the 1966 statement, Rev. Cary and his colleagues declared themselves “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 problem of power and race which has faced our beloved country since 1619.”
The statement, a sweeping manifesto addressing U.S. leaders, White clergy, African Americans and the media on the future of race relations and racial justice, has been cited as a founding document of Black liberation theology.
“These black Christian leaders wrote about jobs, educational systems, equal opportunity, income disparities, de facto segregation, the fact that only a small group of middle-income [African Americans] have made progress in America, the need to rebuild the urban areas, and the need for America to stop its wars of destruction abroad,” theologian Dwight N. Hopkins wrote in the 2017 volume “Black Theology — Essays on Global Perspectives.” “They called on [Black] churches to recognize the power they have and to use that power for the poor on earth instead of mainly pointing to life after death.”
The topic of Black liberation theology received renewed attention during the 2008 presidential race. U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), whose election later that year made him the first Black president in U.S. history, was forced to respond to statements by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his longtime minister and a proponent of Black liberation theology.
Among other comments, Wright was quoted as saying that “racism is how this country was founded and how this country was run. We believe in white supremacy more than we believe in God.”
Rev. Cary observed at the time that “people are quick to condemn Jeremiah Wright, but you have to recognize that the history he is talking about is still with us.”
“I do not see [Rev. Wright] as a relic of the ancient past,” Rev. Cary told NPR, “but as a prophetic voice still urging the nation to take a step toward full justice for all of her people.”
William Sterling Cary, one of eight children, was born in Plainfield, N.J., on Aug. 10, 1927. His father was a real estate broker who was active in the YMCA, the NAACP and religious organizations.
At his mostly White high school, Rev. Cary won a race for student body president by what appeared to be a large margin — only to be told by the administration that he had lost, the New York Times reported in a 1972 profile.
He was ordained in 1948 and graduated the next year from Morehouse College, the historically Black institution in Atlanta. He continued his studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he received a master of divinity degree in 1952. At both schools, according to the Times, he became student body president.
Beginning in the early 1950s, Rev. Cary served as a minister at a Presbyterian church in Youngstown, Ohio, and then at an interdenominational congregation in a housing project in Brooklyn. From 1958 to 1968, he was minister of Grace Congregational Church in Harlem.
Rev. Cary led the Metropolitan New York conference of the United Church of Christ — a role similar to that of a bishop — before becoming president at the National Council of Churches. From 1974 until his retirement in 1994, he led the UCC’s Illinois Conference.
“For me the symbolic victories don’t mean very much,” Rev. Cary told the Times in 1972, reflecting on his distinction as the first African American to head the National Council of Churches. “A black is elected to Congress or mayor of a city that’s almost dead. That’s empowering an individual, not a people.”
Besides his daughter, of Chicago, Rev. Cary’s survivors include his wife of 68 years, the former Marie Phillips of Flossmoor; three other children, Patricia Cary and Denise Cary, both of Flossmoor, and W. Sterling Cary Jr. of Olympia Fields, Ill.; two grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Rev. Cary told NPR in 2008 that he thought American society had taken “tremendous strides” since he and his colleagues made their 1966 statement on Black power.
“This is a different world,” he said, “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.”