Delegates at the National Baptist Convention decided overwhelmingly Thursday not to give the Rev. Henry J. Lyons a second chance to lead the organization he was forced to leave in disgrace 10 years ago.
Lyons received just 924 votes out of 5,032 ballots cast - about 18 percent - at the group's annual convention. The Rev. Julius R. Scruggs, vice president-at-large for the group, was elected president of what is said to be the largest African-American religious organization in the nation.
After the results were announced Thursday night, Scruggs thanked group members for having trust in him to lead.
"I do not take your trust lightly," he said.
Lyons' defeat came after a day of steady voting at the group's meeting. As the voting lines thinned Thursday evening, Scruggs' supporters gathered for prayer and hymns at a reception.
Throughout the day, officials and others said voting had gone smoothly, but many people seemed reluctant to talk about how they had voted. Several said they hoped the organization would not be splintered after the results were announced.
Thousands of members converged in a room at the Memphis Convention Center late Thursday night awaiting the results. Many men were dressed in Sunday best suits, many women in glittering dresses.
Two women wearing T-shirts that said "Yes we can re-elect Henry J. Lyons" drew stares from some attendees.
The Rev. Dwight Montgomery, 59, who pastors a church in Memphis, said he has been playing the role of mediator, especially since the city is where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a proponent of nonviolence, lost his life.
"I have been advocating unity and brotherhood," he said.
But he gave a hint about the way he might have voted when he went on to praise the current president, the Rev. William J. Shaw, under whom Scruggs is vice president. He said Shaw had done a great job of establishing a convention of vision, integrity, structure and accountability.
"And because of that, I certainly want the convention to continue in that vein," Montgomery said.
Lyons served nearly five years in state prison for swindling more than $5.2 million from the organization's corporate partners. He is now pastor of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa and said he has asked for forgiveness. His supporters say he should be given another chance. Others disagree, saying that he brought shame on the convention.
Dorothy Brown of Prince of Peace Church in Memphis was getting ready to vote about 4 p.m. She said her congregation had discussed the election.
"Right now, the pastor is undecided," she said, adding that she planned to vote for Scruggs.
"It's not a personal thing. I just feel comfortable with him. I feel that he would carry on a lot of the programs from Dr. Shaw," she said.
About 20,000 to 30,000 people gathered for the convention this week, less than the 40,000 or so who normally attend, said Deacon Nathaniel Crook, media relations coordinator for the convention.
He blamed the economy for the lower numbers. He said he was unsure how many people planned to vote, but that each church got three votes.
The organization claims a membership of about 7.5 million.
The Rev. Robert Perry of Union Baptist Church in Stamford, Conn., had voted by early afternoon. He cast his vote for Scruggs and said he is embarrassed by the Lyons candidacy.
"I feel as though it puts a blemish on the convention in terms of its leadership. We have overcome the scandal," under Shaw, he said.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283.