By TWILA DECKER and WAVENEY ANN MOORE
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 9, 1999
TAMPA -- Thousands of delegates from around the country go to the polls today to choose a new leader and to try to resurrect the tattered image of the National Baptist Convention USA.
On the eve of the election, candidates made last-minute appeals to enthusiastic crowds in churches and hotel ballrooms around the city -- promising to restore everything from accountability to spirituality.
Judging from the rallies, W. Franklyn Richardson, a candidate who has promised to reform the convention, seems to be the front-runner. He drew about 2,500 to the Hyatt Regency, where supporters chanted, "Rich, Rich, Rich" and waved signs as he entered.
Meanwhile, two of the closest allies of the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, the disgraced former president of the NBC, joined forces.
The Rev. Roscoe D. Cooper, a self-acknowledged underdog, dropped out and threw his support to the Rev. E.V. Hill, the candidate whom Lyons supports.
Lyons repeatedly forged Cooper's signature on financial documents. Despite testifying at Lyons' trial about the forgeries, Cooper, the general secretary of the NBC, has remained loyal to Lyons.
Hill has been the most vocal defender of the former president. He stood behind Lyons throughout his criminal investigation and protected his job until Lyons resigned after his conviction in February.
In return, Lyons has given Hill his unequivocal endorsement from jail. Lyons even wrote a letter in support of the candidate, urging people to vote for him during today's election.
"That day, I will sit in my cell and pray at my bunk all day and night until God gives us the victory that we need in this chosen leader, Dr. E.V. Hill," Lyons wrote in a letter mailed from his St. Petersburg church to pastors around the country.
Lyons also wrote that the NBC's national board of directors asked Hill to run and promised that they would back his candidacy.
"I write this letter to you this day as I sit under unusual and heavy circumstances. Like Joseph, who had to wait on the hand of God to move. Like Job, under cruel conditions ... "
Copies of the letter had been handed out at the Tampa Convention Center during the past few days of the NBC's annual meeting.
Unlike many of their opponents who promised to reform the ways of the convention, Hill and Cooper had said there is little wrong with it, and that Lyons made improvements during his tenure.