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About Lyons, Jackson has little to say

By MIKE WILSON

©St. Petersburg Times, published January 21, 2006


LOS ANGELES -- The Rev. Jesse Jackson, appearing at the National Baptist Convention USA Inc.'s winter board meeting Tuesday, declined to say whether he supports the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, the convention's beleaguered president.

"That's not what I'm here for," Jackson said. Referring to the meeting's agenda, he added: "There's no election to my knowledge."

One of the nation's most influential black leaders, Jackson for months has rebuffed inquiries from reporters about the financial scandals that have engulfed one of his longtime allies. Lyons repeatedly has supported Jackson's political ambitions; Jackson repeatedly has preached at Lyons' St. Petersburg church.

But Jackson did not attend the convention's tumultuous annual meeting in Denver in the fall, where Lyons survived several attempts to oust him from office.

"I was busy," Jackson said, explaining his absence.

Asked whether Lyons asked that he attend Tuesday's meeting, Jackson said, "No, he didn't have to." Jackson, pastor of Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago, said he was a member of the convention and often attends the group's meetings.

Flanked by two aides, Jackson arrived at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles 30 minutes after the convention board convened Tuesday afternoon.

In an interview, Jackson said he came seeking support for an issue unrelated to Lyons: a demonstration in Los Angeles next month against California's Proposition 209, a measure that bans "preferential treatment" by race or gender in state and local governments.

"I come to as many meetings as I can to meet with friends and mobilize support," he said.

Nevertheless, Jackson found himself addressing Lyons' troubles during the board meeting.

It came when the Rev. L.V. Booth, a storied figure in Baptist circles, suggested that the convention cover some of Lyons' legal expenses. Booth, with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., led a revolt from the convention in 1960.

But Jackson said he spoke against the proposal. He said he urged members not to focus exclusively on Lyons' troubles. Jackson said it would be fine for friends to support Lyons but inappropriate for the convention itself to do so.

"If you spend all your time on the issue of the defense of Lyons, you can lose sight of the convention's larger mission, which is to transform society," Jackson said.

He compared Lyons' predicament to that of President Clinton, whose legal defense fund is financed by voluntary contributions.

"The government is not putting up money to bail him out," he said.

Noting the convention's long history of fighting racism, Jackson said the group's future is more important than the future of any one member. Of Lyons' legal problems, he said: "The courts will do what the courts must do. I don't know very much about the particulars of his situation, nor is that something I'm going to get involved in."

The bond between Jackson and Lyons spans at least 15 years.

In 1983, Lyons, then a Republican, switched parties to become Florida chairman for Jackson's 1984 presidential bid.

Four years later, Lyons, then president of the Florida branch of the National Baptist Convention, again offered support to Jackson. Lyons told then-Sen. Al Gore that he was the state convention's second choice -- after Jackson -- for the nomination.

After Lyons became president of the National Baptist Convention, Jackson was named as the group's Washington lobbyist.

The Jackson-Lyons friendship faltered in 1995 after Jackson claimed the convention supported the Nation of Islam's Million Man March. Lyons said that was untrue and that Jackson had misspoke.

But July 21, two weeks after Lyons' wife set fire to a $700,000 waterfront house Lyons owns with another woman, Jackson sent a Western Union telegram to Lyons.

The telegram said: "There is a powerful message in the song When the Storms of Life are Raging Stand By Me. He remains (an) ever-present source of help in times of trouble. He is the wind beneath our wings. On this faith and with this hope and much prayer, you will get to higher ground. You are not friendless. Keep hope alive."

Asked Tuesday about the telegram, Jackson said, "It's immoral to wish anyone ill will."

Jackson wasn't the only high-profile participant Tuesday. Singer Stevie Wonder performed the hymn I Will Not Complain. Wonder, once a member of Burnette Baptist Church in Detroit, was whisked out of the hotel after the song.

Unlike the convention's contentious meeting in Denver in the fall, the atmosphere in Los Angeles has been cordial and pleasant. No one asked Lyons to resign Tuesday, the Rev. Arlene Churn of Philadelphia said: "It was not that kind of meeting."

One Lyons opponent tried to raise questions about ethics and accountability. Lyons successfully deflected the questions.

The Rev W. Franklyn Richardson, a New York state minister who opposed Lyons for president, emerged from the meeting room and shrugged. It was "just a church service," Richardson said.

The Rev. E.V. Hill, one of Lyons' staunchest supporters, said he doesn't expect any challenges to Lyons' presidency this week.

"Baptists are very compassionate people," he said, adding that the convention cannot afford to lose Lyons. "We're not overwhelmed with leadership. We don't have that much leadership to lose."


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