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The Rev. Henry Lyons



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Lyons plays race card, but who dealt it?


©St. Petersburg Times, published September 10, 1997

Many are still struggling to understand what went on at the National Baptist Convention's meeting in Denver.

How, they wonder, in the face of so much damning evidence, could they support Henry Lyons? How could they defend a preacher who many of them thought could be the poster boy for the seven deadly sins?

The short answer is this: This country's struggle with slavery remains unresolved.

The mistaken tendency currently is to dismiss this point out of hand, the argument being something along the lines of slavery ended more than 130 years ago, black people need to get over it.

That is the conscience-clearing, guilt-free answer that naturally is popular with contemporary white Americans. But it is woefully illogical and inaccurate.

Slavery didn't end with the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War; it merely changed forms. A realistic perspective is that enslavement of black Americans ended just more than 30 years ago when the 1964 Civil Rights Act put a price tag on discrimination.

It was only then that black Americans gained some legal recourse when they were denied the privileges other Americans never needed to give a second thought to.

The intervening years have been a contentious test of the country's willingness to enforce the law.

Most of the delegates in Denver lived through those times.

Most of them live through a few moments of those times in their daily lives.

Henry Lyons knows that. He knew that, when he pushed those delegates into a position where they were forced to choose between him and the "white media," they didn't have a choice at all. They were not going to let the white media dictate to them again -- as they have over the years -- who their leader should be. They were going to show that they had the ultimate power that American citizenship grants: the authority to be contrary.

So they refused to fire a man whose tenure as their president was scarred with a lifestyle no good Christian could condone. They did that rather than take Lyons to the gallows the media had built for him.

Had the same information been uncovered by their own investigation, Lyons' support within the convention would have been virtually nonexistent. His persecution defense would have fallen on deaf ears. He would have had to explain instead where a lot of money came from and where it went, areas he has ineptly dealt with previously.

The immediate charge from observers who were surprised and offended that Lyons received a final vote of confidence was that Lyons played the "race card." It is true that he used the black-white polarization for his salvation. He gave delegates the non-choice between him and the vilified white press.

What those critics fail to do, however, is explore why the so-called race card works, or why they only apply the term to actions by black people. That would require some self-examination, on the part of blacks and whites, and would lead to some disturbing conclusions.

The race card works because vestiges of the master/slave mentality are still with us. It works because there are still those among us who can say with a straight face that powder cocaine -- which is used predominantly by well-to-do white people -- is not nearly as bad as the crystallized form called crack that is associated more with poor and black people. The race card works because there are many among us who call it joyrides when white teenagers steal a car and grand theft when black teenagers do the same thing.

The race card works because there are some among us who oppose affirmative action not because they think it has achieved its goal but because they think it's proper for the scale to be tipped a little bit their way.

Yes, it was reprehensible of Lyons to play the race card, almost as bad as America dealing it to him.

©Copyright 2006 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.