Choir members from Calvary Baptist Church of Jamaica, New York, swayed as they sang black gospel hymns prior to the installation of M. William Howard, Jr., as new president of the National Council of Churches (NCC).

And perhaps that was appropriate. As the youngest person and the second black president of the NCC, Howard may do some moving and shaking of his own within traditionalist elements of the largest ecumenical body in the nation. It’s thirty-two-member Protestant and Eastern Orthodox denominations claim some 41 million people on their rolls.

Howard, 32, grew up in Americus, Georgia, a place he calls “one of the toughest anti-civil rights towns in the nation.” He attended a segregated high school, took part in black demonstrations during the turbulent 1960s, and became a disciple of the late Martin Luther King, Jr.,—killed during Howard’s senior year at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Howard came through these experiences without forming a hatred for whites. Instead, he says that he developed an “openness to people.” Tall and thin, polished in speech and manner, Howard graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary and became the pastor of First Baptist Church of Princeton, New Jersey. He was named director of a leadership training program for black pastors and laymen within the Reformed Church in America.

But Howard hasn’t forgotten his upbringing. “If I were to say that picking cotton in the hot sun in southwest Georgia, and hearing grandmothers being referred to as ‘girl’ by teen-age, white men has not informed my ministry, I would be telling you a lie.”

Indeed, the American Baptist clergyman has become a specialist in racial justice while serving ...

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