NEWS STORY: Black Baptists begin balloting for new president

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c. 1999 Religion News Service

TAMPA, Fla. _ After rallies, demonstrations and even prayer meetings, tens of thousands of delegates to the annual session of the National Baptist Convention, USA, first voted and then waited Thursday (Sept. 9) for the results of a much-anticipated election of a new president for the image-tarnished denomination whose former leader was sent to prison six months ago.

While they waited, they heard a spiritual message from the Rev. Stewart C. Cureton, who has acted as interim president since the March resignation of the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, and a political message from Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes.

Cureton, of Mauldin, S.C., expressed confidence in the future of the denomination and urged reconciliation, even among the opposing candidates after the election is over.”This convention needs everyone’s support,”he said, drawing applause from the 16,000 people gathered at the Ice Palace Arena.”This convention is bigger than one man. This convention is bigger than a general secretary, a president and five or six vice presidents. The day has come that we as black Baptists must put our swords (away) … and study war no more against each other.” Tensions have been high in the prominent African-American denomination before and since Lyons was sent to prison for stealing money intended for burned black churches and swindling millions from corporations wishing to market products to NBCUSA members.

But Cureton, commended for his calm demeanor throughout his interim term, said no one should gloat over Lyons’ fall from grace.”Our former president, Dr. Henry J. Lyons, needs our prayers,”said Cureton.”In spite of the mistakes that he made, he is still our brother.” Forbes, who addressed the group just before Cureton’s presidential address, supported racial reconciliation and school choice.

Forbes said he would block Department of Education grant money and send it to state and local communities instead.”Let parents choose schools that work _ schools that are safe, clean, drug-free, disciplined, academically challenging and that reinforce rather than undermine the moral and spiritual values that are being instilled at home,”he said.

Although the crowd responded to Forbes politely, most of the Baptists were more immediately interested in their own presidential election than the national one.

The pre-election fervor reached a fever pitch Wednesday night as rallies were held in churches and hotels near downtown Tampa for front-runners and also-rans.

Although the names of 11 candidates remained on the ballot Thursday, two dropped out before the voting began. The Rev. Roscoe Cooper of Richmond, Va., the current general secretary, and the Rev. Matthew Johnson of Greensboro, N.C., removed themselves from the race. Cureton is not a candidate. Under NBCUSA rules, the candidate receiving the most votes, even if it is less than a majority, wins.

More than 1,000 supporters waved blue and white banners and signs to cheer on the Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson of Mount Vernon, N.Y., from the ballroom of the Hyatt Regency. Richardson said his election would help the denomination as well as the black church in general.”My vision is bigger than our denomination,”Richardson said.”It’s bigger than just the machinery of the National Baptist Convention. We must use the National Baptist Convention as a tool for liberation and leveraging and empowerment of our people.” A crowd about half as large as Richardson’s turnout welcomed the Rev. William J. Shaw to a worship service at Beulah Baptist Institutional Church.

Shaw said he hopes to turn the attention of the convention _ and those outside the denomination _ from Lyons to the future.”For the first time, the world has been aware of the convention,”he said.”They’re looking now to see what direction we will take out of this.” Shaw, too, has had a proactive campaign, including posting four billboards in the Tampa area with his slogan:”vision, integrity, structure, accountability,”or VISA.

Along with the aggressive campaigns came outspoken fund-raising appeals. At both events, supporters were urged to give money to defray the costs of the election efforts. At Shaw’s service, checks for $2,000 and $1,000 were collected along with many of smaller amounts. At Richardson’s prayer rally, donations of $5,000, $4,000 and numerous $1,000 gifts _ with at least one in cash _ flowed in. A total of $63,000 was raised Wednesday evening, Richardson said.

The Rev. E.V. Hill, a third candidate considered by some to be a front-runner, held a rally at another hotel and then spoke just after 1 a.m. EDT Thursday in the same room where Richardson’s rally had been held.”The new president of this convention must lead us back to the high standards of our forefathers,”said Hill, drawing cheers from a far smaller crowd than filled the room a couple of hours earlier.”Someone has said that if you vote for Hill, he’ll take us back 100 years. … I don’t want to take you back 100 years. I want to take you back 2,000. I want to take you back to the cross.” Richardson and Shaw ran against Lyons in 1994 and were defeated in a contest whose election procedures were called into question.

Hill _ who received Cooper’s backing _ and others urged fairness and civility during election day.”It is my prayer that not a single act of fraud or crookedness is committed,”said Hill.”If somebody has taught you how to use the poll in a crooked way, forget what they have said. … As bad as I want to be president, I don’t want a single person to vote for me that’s not qualified.” (OPTIONAL TRIM _ STORY MAY END HERE)

Lyons, who has endorsed Hill, was mentioned at the late-night prayer service that Hill addressed.

The Rev. E.J. Jones, chairman of the late-night program, urged those attending the service to give to an”HJL”defense fund to help defray Lyons’ continuing legal costs.

Jones, still angry about the guilty verdict by a Florida jury that sent Lyons to prison for 5 1/2 years, said he asked his wife not to even buy a pair of pantyhose in the state. He asked that 200 pastors give $100 to help defray Lyons’ legal fees.”There’s a group of us that’s still trying to get Henry Lyons out,”said Jones.

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