The largest US Protestant denomination was expected to elect the first black president in its 167-year history on Tuesday, just weeks after the predominately white religious group reprimanded one of its officials for making racially insensitive remarks.

Church leaders said choosing New Orleans pastor Fred Luter Jr. to head the Southern Baptist Convention would make an important statement about the denomination's efforts to distance itself from its racist past and become more diverse.

First Baptist New Orleans Pastor David Crosby, who will nominate Luter, said the move is a statement that "we not only love people of color, we want them in our leadership."

Luter, 55, has already served as the first African-American in various leadership positions within the convention, including as its current first vice president.

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