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Lyons' backers successfully use race as political strategy

Times Staff Writers

©St. Petersburg Times, published September 4, 1997

DENVER -- As the Rev. Henry J. Lyons prepared Wednesday morning for another defense of his presidency, his supporters in the National Baptist Convention USA handed out a freshly printed newspaper that reduced the issues to black and white.

The question, according to the paper, wasn't whether Lyons had extramarital affairs or used convention money to buy a luxurious home, a sleek German car and a diamond the size of a small acorn.

The question was why white people, especially reporters, are trying to "crucify" him.

"Those elements that are testing Rev. Lyons, principally the white media -- the puppet of the white establishment -- believe Rev. Lyons is in a vulnerable position," said the paper, called Just For The Record. Wednesday's issue was marked "Vol. I No. I."

"The white establishment's target today is Rev. Lyons. Their target tomorrow, who knows? Black America, however, is the ultimate victim," the paper said. Among the people distributing the paper was Vonda Lyons, the president's 23-year-old daughter. Race has been a major topic of discussion here this week, almost as talked about as God and Henry Lyons. In sermons and in speeches, in news conferences and private chats, Lyons' backers have cited it as the reason for what they see as his persecution by the white establishment.

The nation's racial history being what it is, it is easy for convention delegates to believe that whites are out to get a powerful black leader.

But for Lyons and his supporters, talking about race is at least partly a political strategy, and the strategy has worked. Instead of talking about what Lyons did, his backers have asked people to consider what the media did and why they did it.

In effect, Lyons' supporters have asked the convention delegates a simple question: Whose side are you on? Do you side with a successful black man who has confessed his sins or with the white media establishment that has worked so feverishly to expose them?

For many delegates, the answer is clear. When Lyons asked that the media be removed from the convention hall at a tense moment Wednesday morning, hundreds stood and cheered.

Security guards had little trouble identifying the journalists. Of the more than two-dozen people covering the convention, all but a handful are white.

Lyons first mentioned race as an issue in a news conference in St. Petersburg on July 11, five days after his wife, Deborah, set fire to the Tierra Verde home he owns with convicted embezzler and former convention employee Bernice Edwards.

"The problem is, and African-Americans need to understand this, and all poor people, the problem is that you, like me, do not own television stations. We don't own big-time newspapers like the St. Petersburg Times," Lyons said.

He asked the reporters, "What are you trying to imply? That blacks in this country cannot be successful and live well?"

Lyons' detractors say it is disingenuous of him to blame whites for his troubles.

"I resent deeply that he talks about the white media attacking him. It was white money that bought our convention," said the Rev. Arlene Churn of Philadelphia. She was referring to deals Lyons made with two white-owned insurance companies, a white-owned funeral home company and a white-owned bank -- deals on which Lyons took hundreds of thousands of dollars in commissions.

The Rev. Albert Campbell, who resigned in protest from the commission that investigated Lyons, agreed that Lyons' troubles were not about race.

"We believe that there is a conservative, white, male-sponsored effort to destroy responsible black leadership. But in this instance, we could not take that position because the president himself put bullets in the guns of our enemies," he said.

Race has come up again and again this week.

On Sunday, the Rev. Acen L. Phillips of Denver told his congregation that the white media were persecuting Lyons, to which many in the pews shouted Amen.

On Monday, after the convention's executive committee gave Lyons a vote of confidence, the Rev. E.V. Hill of California said, "We don't have a ministry of condemnation. We have a ministry of reconciliation. White people don't understand that in their institutions, so they pull down their Bakkers and their Swaggarts."

Later that day, someone speaking at a convention board meeting said the delegates should not allow the white establishment to tell them "who to whip, how to whip, and when to whip."

On Tuesday, the Rev. C. Eugene Overstreet urged delegates to support Lyons, saying, "Let the white folk do whatever they need to do. . . . We're not FBI. We cannot prosecute. What do they want from the man? Blood?"

Race was especially important Wednesday, the day Lyons' detractors seized the convention floor and called for another vote -- the fourth in three days -- on his future.

The Rev. John Chaplin of Washington, D.C., told the convention that he overheard two reporters talking about why they had decided to stay in Denver until Wednesday. "We heard that the Negroes are going to fight," he quoted the journalists as saying. Hearing this, the delegates murmured and hissed.

Then Chaplin made a clear distinction between the black Baptist world and the society at large, saying, "We cannot let the outside world put that kind of judgment on us today."

In a speech defending Lyons, the Rev. Roscoe Cooper, the convention's general secretary, said people who "screw up" in America are given "no possibility of redemption."

"We as African-Americans are victimized by that," he said, "because when we screw up . . . more often than not we receive the sentence which carries the maximum penalty of the law."

Widespread amens.

After the convention voted -- again -- to retain Lyons, Hill explained its decision by saying, "We're family. We're members of the tribe."

He said Lyons was tired and needed a rest, perhaps on a boat with his wife. A white television reporter asked whether Lyons would give his annual address tonight or perhaps go boating instead.

"Do you all see why I don't like white press?" Hill snapped.

"Garbage press," echoed Overstreet.

Many of Lyons' opponents said the talk of race is purely a diversionary tactic.

"This is not about the white press. We have conducted an independent investigation," one dissident told the convention delegates in a speech Wednesday.

But in the end, one Lyons supporter said, race had a lot to do with the convention's decision to keep Lyons as president.

If the investigative commission had proved that Lyons spent churchgoers' tithes and offerings on houses and diamonds, the convention would have dumped him, said the Rev. Mike Williams of Houston, one of Lyons'allies.

But since -- according to Lyons -- the money came from business deals with big corporations, people were far more willing to forgive, Williams said.

After all, he said, "This was white people's money."

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