CHANGING HISTORY: Rev. Fred Luter's election as first vice president puts him in line to possibly become the SBC's first black president.
Fred Luter Jr., pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, was elected first vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention on June 13, a milestone that many believe may eventually lead him to assume the denomination’s top position. UrbanFaith news & religion editor Christine A. Scheller spoke to Luter by phone Monday. The conversation focused on Luter’s historic ascent to leadership in a denomination that was founded, in part, as a means of preserving a religious justification for the institution of slavery in America. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
URBAN FAITH: Have you always been a Southern Baptist?
Fred Luter: Franklin Avenue at one time was an all-white Southern Baptist church, but in the late 1970s, there was a white flight. Whites moved out of the neighborhood; blacks moved back in. The white congregation literally turned the building over to the local Baptist association, so that it would be used for the people in this community. I’ve always given them credit for that. They could have torn it down or sold it to the highest bidder. They knew the neighborhood was changing, so they wanted it to be used for the people in this community. I came in 1986, so the church was already a Southern Baptist church.
The initial New York Times report on your election noted a Southern Baptist connection to slavery. Were you aware of that when you became pastor at Franklin Avenue?
No, to be honest, I was not. I had no idea at all. … When I found out, I was already too deep in it. I doubt if a lot of people who are part of our churches are aware. … Back in 1845, the convention was started as a split between the American Baptist Convention. They started the Southern Baptist Convention based on the issue of slavery. That’s part of our dark past.
What is the significance of your election?
I didn’t realize how significant it was until I started getting all these requests for interviews. It has been incredible. I’ve been a part of this since ’86 and … I never thought it would get this much notoriety. I guess if something happens to the president, you it. … We lost over 4000 members in Katrina who were displaced all over the country and I started getting calls from people all across the country saying, “I saw you in this paper. I saw you in that paper. I saw you on CNN.”
Your church lost 4,000 members from Hurricane Katrina?
We had grown from 50 members back in ’86 to about 8,000. We were the largest Southern Baptist church in the state of Lousiana, white or black. God had blessed us in a mighty, mighty way. But then Katrina came and destroyed all of that. Our church was flooded with nine feet of water.
The Baptist Press report on the convention noted its emphasis on ethnicity, and unity. Was there a concerted effort, in the pursuit of diversity, to elect an African American?
Honestly, I don’t think it was, because this report involving ethnicity was really a resolution that came forward in our convention last year in Orlando … that this convention was going to vote on. I think it just so happened that my election came at the same time that this was a major resolution. … I think the background of it, honestly, is that next year the convention is going to be in New Orleans, and I got some calls saying, “Hey man, it would be really nice, since the convention is going to be in New Orleans, that you be in a position of leadership in your hometown.”
What is the value of the diversity resolution?
I think it’s critical. Back in , the convention made a public apology for their beginnings, for their founding on slavery, and they apologized to all the African American pastors in the convention. … That was the start of what’s now becoming something we’re beginning to see, because in this convention there are other ethnicities. Of course, it’s predominantly Anglo, but now we have African Americans, we have Asians, we have Hispanics, and so many in the leadership roles are saying it doesn’t make any sense to have all these different ethnic groups at our convention and the leadership role is lily white. Those in leadership said, “Let’s start doing something about this.”
I think it’s great. It says to those of us who are part of the convention that, yes, this is a part of our past, but we have been talking about including other ethnic groups for a while; now it’s time to start putting our money where our mouth is. Let’s start walking it instead of just talking it. I think it’s now finally coming together.
ACTING PRESIDENTIAL: Obama impersonator Reggie Brown onstage at the Republican Leadership Conference on June 18, before getting the hook. (Newscom photo/Lee Celano)
The top story in politics from this past weekend was the gathering of GOP candidates at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans. But the main topic of conversation around water coolers on Monday morning wasn’t what the candidates said but what was said about them on Saturday night by an intrepid Barack Obama impersonator. After delivering jokes aimed squarely at President Obama, the Faux-bama suddenly appeared to (forgive us, Mrs. Palin) “go rogue” with sharp zingers aimed at the GOP contenders. It was at this point that the performer’s microphone fell silent, and he was abruptly escorted from the stage.
An equal opportunity comedian, Reggie Brown is undaunted by the criticism from multiplequarters regarding his performance, and particularly the race jokes he shared during his act. UrbanFaith news and religion editor Christine Scheller spoke to Brown by phone Tuesday afternoon. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
URBAN FAITH: Have you ever had this kind of response before to one of your performances?
REGGIE BROWN: No, this the beginning. This has been amazing.
What’s your reaction?
I love it. It was an opportunity to get in front of a huge audience. When I first got the invitation, I was extremely excited to come down and speak at the leadership conference. … I’ve been building a reputation in the corporate world, with speakers bureaus and other private events, but for the most part, a lot of America didn’t really know who I was yet, and this gave me the opportunity to get out there. I did my job, did my material. From what I’ve heard, everyone thought I did it very, very well, including pretty much everyone at the conference who came up [to me afterwards]. I’ve been getting thousands of fan mails and new subscribers. Even the organizers thanked me and told me I did a great job.
In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, it sounded like the Republican Leadership Conference president sold you out. He said he would have pulled you sooner and had no tolerance for racially insensitive jokes. What did you think about that?
I don’t even want to touch that. People are intelligent enough to know when I delivered the jokes and when I was pulled. That was in the beginning of my material and it wasn’t until later when I brought up the candidates that I was pulled off the stage. From what they told me, I was over my time.
Do you get more gigs with Republican organizations than with Democratic ones?
So far, yeah. I think I have worked more for Republican parties than Democrat, but I work with Tim Waters, who was the number one Clinton impersonator and he said during [Clinton’s] reign, he found that to be true also. He said, “You’ll always find the opposing party hires you more.”
There was some debate about your race jokes in African American media outlets. What do you think about that?
My mother’s white and my father’s black, so I would have that in common with the president and I wouldn’t do anything towards any race to set them back … For my jokes to be called racist initially by a lot of reviews that came out, it’s absolutely ridiculous.
I thought they were done in a tasteful manner. It’s nothing I would have felt ashamed with if I was in that audience and someone said it. I don’t think the president took offense to it. He actually cracked jokes at the Correspondent’s Dinner referring to his background. When he opens a door on a topic, that opens it for me as well.
I don’t ever want to offend anyone in my material. Basically what I do is bring humor to situations. That’s comedy. I think it was one individual who made that statement. The media took it and started running with it. I urge people to watch the full appearance. I felt that I did well and everyone else pretty much has too.
Do you feel like you can’t win doing race jokes as a biracial person or can you address the topic from both angles?
I can address things from both sides, especially nowadays, it’s more common for people to be biracial and mixed. … I know it was tough for my mom to raise me in the neighborhood we grew up in, especially taking us to certain pools and doing things like that. Now it’s just becoming more widely accepted and that’s a beautiful thing.
Do you have any tips for a comedian trying to work a tough room?
You just need to know your audience. I performed at a comedy club in Times Square really late one night, doing my political jokes and a lot of the material that normally kills fell flat, but it was because at 1:00 in the morning at a comedy club, most of them wanted to hear the F-bombs being dropped and I came with really witty political humor. I didn’t do too well. I got off stage and saw the next couple comedians, and immediately they’re like eff this, eff that, and everyone was rolling on the floor. So, you just have to know your audience and anticipate what they want.
YES, HE CAN: Reggie Brown says Obama's own jokes about his background open the door for him to be more daring about race.
Did the Republican Leadership Conference audience laugh less at the Republican jokes than at the race jokes as reported?
That audience was awesome. They were amazing. That’s why the performance was so good. As a performer, for the most part, doing what I do, you gain off the energy. After I got pulled, they were coming up to me, [saying], “Why’d they pull you off the stage? You were the best part of the conference for me.” … They were great. Even when I was getting the oohs and ahhs, I was still getting a strong reaction.”
On your website, it says you offer clean comedy for corporate events. Is that qualifier based on anything in particular?
Basically, it’s the character protection. There are other guys out there trying to do the Obama character and they’re doing it in ways that I feel are disrespectful, not only to the president, but to … I’m not even going to go there, but I just don’t agree with what they’re doing. There’s a YouTube video of this guy drinking 40s and smoking joints as the president. That’s ridiculous. That does nothing for the progression of comedy in my mind. For comedy to be funny, it’s gotta’ be witty, intelligent, and have something behind it. That’s what we do.
Are you primarily a clean comedian even when you’re not doing the Obama character?
Yeah, for the most part. I’m an actor first and foremost, so I would accept roles that aren’t necessarily clean. Sometimes in my material as myself, I tend to keep it PG-13, but I’m not one of those guys that goes out there and just swears, swears, swears. It’s gotta have some intelligence behind it and some motivation behind it.
What are you up to next?
A surprise appearance at a major sporting event on Thursday, but we have tons of bookings coming in. … Most of the time, I’m a surprise guest so I can’t really reveal where I’ll be, but you’ll be seeing a lot more of me very soon.