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The Rev. Henry Lyons



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Ouster attempt fails; Lyons wins

MIKE WILSON and MONICA DAVEY, Times Staff Writers

©St. Petersburg Times, published September 4, 1997

DENVER -- In a dramatic and tumultuous showdown Wednesday, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons won a clear vote of forgiveness from thousands of cheering Baptists and secured his position as president of the nation's largest black religious group.

The victory was decisive: Lyons' most serious rivals pledged their support for the National Baptist Convention USA Inc. and said they would abandon their attempts to unseat him.

"I am looking for healing," said Lyons, exhausted but jubilant after surviving weeks of withering criticism and angry calls for his resignation.

It was a day of vivid images:

  • Hundreds of dissident Baptists shoving their way past Lyons' security guards and rushing the convention stage chanting, "Let the people speak!"

  • Lyons' wife, who lit the fire that touched off two months of news reports and a series of criminal investigations, making an emotional plea for understanding. "I'm asking you -- I'm begging you, in the name of Jesus," to give Lyons another chance, Deborah Lyons said. "He's not a thief."

  • Convention security guards ejecting dozens of journalists from the hall as delegates cheered and shouted, "Get out! get out!"

  • Lyons, mobbed by supporters after the vote, holding up his arms in victory like a prize-fighter who has scored a knockout. "The people here have spoken," Lyons said, "and they spoke in a great way."

With the power struggle for the presidency behind him, Lyons now can focus his attention on the criminal investigations by state and federal prosecutors into his handling of convention money.

For the first time on Wednesday, the Rev. E.V. Hill, a Lyons' supporter from Los Angeles, disclosed that the National Baptist Convention USA Inc. will not pay Lyons' legal fees. Pulling a wad of cash from his pocket, though, Hill said he and other pastors would certainly donate money to a legal defense fund should that become necessary.

"He's not in a boat by himself," Hill said. "He's in a boat with 8-million people."

He went on: "If he needs a good lawyer, my lawyer trained attorney (Johnny) Cochran."

Asked if Lyons' status as president could change should he be indicted, Hill pointed to the vote of confidence for Lyons on Wednesday. "We have spoken."

Grady Irvin, Lyons' attorney, said such questions were premature. "He has not been charged with anything, so I sleep peacefully at night."

* * *

Since Tuesday afternoon, when Lyons' opponents announced they would seek his resignation on the floor of the convention's annual meeting Wednesday morning, the opposing camps began lining up support for a fight.

Late Tuesday night, at a banquet to raise money for black colleges, the Rev. Roscoe Cooper, the convention's general secretary, urged Lyons' supporters to arrive at the center early to fill the seats near the front of the hall.

"And go to the bathroom before you come," Cooper said, "because if you leave your seat, someone is going to steal it."

He vowed to block Lyons' opponents from disrupting Wednesday's session. "We are going to go on with our convention."

Anti-Lyons' forces, meanwhile, printed up 15,000 fliers. They spent the rest of the night roaming from hotel to hotel, slipping the papers under the doors of sleeping Baptists.

By Wednesday morning, as hundreds began filling the cavernous hall of the Colorado Convention Center, it was clear Lyons' people were preparing for a major confrontation. They erected barricades in front of the stage. Dozens of private security guards took up positions. A dozen Lyons' supporters sat behind tables at the base of the stage, facing the audience and forming a human barrier.

Lyons' organizers cordoned off another 1,000 seats near the front of the hall. Reporters and photographers were ordered 100 yards back from the stage. The hall was flooded with broadsheets accusing Lyons' opponents of plotting in secret to spread "lies, allegations, innuendo, rumors and false documents."

"Can you spot them?" the flier asked.

Lyons' opponents, however, were equally insistent on being heard. "Some of the boys are ready to go to jail today," said the Rev. Boise Kimber of Connecticut.

Shortly before 9 a.m., the Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson, an anti-Lyons' leader, arrived in the hall, hand in hand with his wife. They strode to the front and took seats near the group of dissidents, who had agreed in advance to march to the stage at a set time. It soon became apparent their plans would have to change.

Lyons' staff declared the assembly of 10,000 Baptists closed to the media, though the convention's press handlers earlier had promised the meeting would be open. Staff members spread through the hall to eject the 30 reporters and photographers.

"This is a business session," the Rev. Charles Williams, the convention's public relations director, told the reporters. "You must leave now."

The reporters appealed to Williams to reconsider. Most refused to leave, or began interviewing Lyons' critics for their reaction.

"They don't want the world to see what they are doing," said the Rev. Kenneth Whalum of Memphis. "Garbage, garbage, garbage."

He and other dissidents quickly changed course, decided to march on the stage before the press was ejected. "We've got to get going while the press is here," Whalum whispered to a confederate. "The people back home have got to see this."

Lyons' press aides again tried to remove journalists from the hall. But their efforts resulted in a chaos of pushing and shoving, as a few hundred anti-Lyons preachers forced their way past security guards to the stage.

The preachers rushed the stage, pumping their fists in the air and chanting: "Let the people speak! Let the people speak!"

Their chants were drowned out, though, as Lyons' supporters on stage began to sing a hymn: I'm on the Battlefield for My Lord.

The opponents' chants held perfect rhythm with the singing of the crowd. A Lyons supporter pushed into the group of dissidents, crying: "Lord have mercy on us! Lord have mercy on us!"

Finally, Lyons stepped to the podium and, in a hushed voice, called for calm. The music stopped. So did the chants.

He quietly told his detractors: "We will let you speak. We're going to let you speak. My brothers and sisters, I realize that there is a definite breach among us."

Lyons noted the presence of several senior and "respected" clergy among the protesters. "We must hear from these men," he announced.

Return to your seats, he said, adding: "We are asking the press, please be removed. This is family business and we are all brothers and sisters."

People stood and cheered as the reporters were escorted out of the hall. People pointed. Others screamed out: "Go!" and "Out! Out!"

* * *

Inside the hall, seven Lyons' supporters and seven opponents were given five minutes each to make their case before the assembled crowd.

Lyons' opponents adopted their enemies' theme of the week -- Christian forgiveness for Lyons -- but said accountability also was in order. Law enforcement investigations into Lyons' financial dealings could lead to legal trouble for the organization, the opponents said. The group's tax exempt status might even be jeopardized, they said.

Then Lyons' friends took their turn.

Hill, the Lyons' supporter who led the investigative commission that looked into the allegations against him, drew rousing cheers when he named other black leaders whose lives were scrutinized by authorities. Adam Clayton Powell. Dr. Martin Luther King. "The fact that we may face investigation is nothing new. Afro-American people have been investigated ever since we hit this shore. The fact that our president might be investigated is nothing new."

"But we kept on marching," Hill said. "As long as there is a white press, negroes will be indicted and accused, and I could care less what the white press and what the white world is waiting to hear."

As the ministers spoke, Deborah Lyons entered the room and walked to the front. She said she was not a polished speaker, but addressed the crowd in a strong, loud voice. Her words were emotional. Most of those assembled listened in silence. Her husband had dreamed of leading this group, she said.

"Yes, he's made mistakes," Deborah Lyons said. "We've all made mistakes."

When Lyons came into office in 1994, Mrs. Lyons said, he asked her if he could spend money from their own savings account to help pay the debt on the organization's World Center in Nashville. She said she responded, "You're my husband and whatever you want to do to lead the convention, that is what I want you to do."

"Let me stop right here and pause and tell you about my mistake," Mrs. Lyons said. "I've never told this to a body and nobody but my family knows this, but I'm a recovering alcoholic and through all of that, through all of that, when my husband was preaching all over the United States and the world he had to come get on that phone and say, "How is your mother doing?' and "How is she holding up?'

"And many times, I couldn't stand up, but through his love and through the grace of God and my family, I did that. So I'm coming here today to say he made mistakes. We all make mistakes."

Then she spoke of the July 6 fire which sparked the controversy connected to Lyons. Mrs. Lyons initially told authorities she had set fire to the $700,000 house Lyons owns with convicted embezzler Bernice Edwards because she believed he was having an affair with Edwards, who also is a former convention official. She later changed her story.

On Wednesday, she told her husband's organization the fire was an accident. "When I went out to the house and set it on fire by accident. Yes, it was an accident. But he has forgiven me. God has forgiven me, and my family has forgiven me."

Then Lyons himself spoke. As he has for several days, Lyons apologized to his followers.

""Forgive me, forgive me, forgive me . . . and give me a second chance." He also criticized the media for its reporting.

"The press killed Princess Diana," Lyons said. "Don't let them kill the convention."

* * *

Outside the hall where the speeches were being made, Denver Mayor Wellington E. Webb told the crowd of ejected reporters that he did not approve of their removal from the city-owned convention hall.

Webb, the black Denver mayor who has spent the past few days embracing the convention while at the same time distancing himself from its internal conflicts, was clearly upset. "I do not think it was a wise decision to ask the press to leave," Webb said. "I think the public has a right to learn what the debate is about."

Webb, who had waived the convention hall's $62,000 rental fee to lure the National Baptist Convention USA to Denver, left to intercede with Lyons.

The speeches were over by the time Webb emerged with Irvin, Lyons' attorney, to announce that the NBC had agreed to let journalists back inside.

There, the Rev. Calvin Butts of New York, a Lyons' foe, was at the podium making a motion to remove Lyons from office. Those who wanted Lyons expelled from office were asked to stand. Thousands did, in silence.

Then, those who wanted Lyons to remain in office were asked to stand. A clear majority of the hall stood and cheered. That set off a wild celebration on the podium.

Supporters mobbed Lyons, raising his hands in victory, hugging him, pounding him on the back. They were dancing and singing, "Amen."

"A tribal celebration," Hill later called it. "No white press stipulates what we do next." A Lyons' supporter passed the watching reporters. "Get used to it," he shouted.

Lyons' opponents, still on the stage, quickly conceded defeat. They pledged unity.

"We will support the convention," Richardson announced to the hall. The Rev. Jasper Williams, another vocal opponent, announced his Atlanta church would make a $1,000 donation to the convention. He called for others to donate.

Later, Richardson said he was "pleased with the process" and conceded that his side was clearly outvoted. He estimated the vote at 55 percent in favor of Lyons to 45 percent against. (Lyons' supporters estimated the vote at 75 percent to 25 percent.)

"The convention," Richardson said, "decided to not abandon its president in a time of crisis. The convention forgave its president."

Said a dejected Calvin Butts: "I guess I'll have to take my whipping now."

As he and other dissidents left quietly, Lyons was ushered out of the hall by a jubilant throng of supporters. They wrapped around him in a protective cocoon, pushing photographers back.

"Paparazzi!" some people shouted angrily at the photographers, an obvious reference to the death of Princess Diana.

"Hallelujah!" others cried out. Dozens of well-wishers reached out to touch Lyons as the throng slowly made its way through the hall to a room set up for a press conference.

Lyons' wife pressed against his side, her arm in his.

-- Times staff writer Craig Pittman and researcher Carolyn Hardnett contributed to this report.

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