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 of 5,032 ballots cast - about 18 percent - at the group's annual convention. The Rev. Julius R. Scruggs, the group's vice president-at-large, 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 trusting him to lead.
"I do not take your trust lightly," he said. "I will do everything in my power to seek to live up to your trust."
Lyons could not be reached for comment after the vote.
"I was surprised by how resounding the victory was," said the Rev. Ronald Bobo, one of Lyons' supporters. "But this is the will of the people and we will move forward."
The Rev. Vincent Mitchell, 47, of Greenville, S.C., said he was not surprised by Scruggs' victory.
"The election was based on trust and not on forgiveness," Mitchell said. "All of us have something to be forgiven for, but we need someone we can trust."
Lyons had spoken to the convention Tuesday, and told members that God had forgiven him, said Beverly Burnett, a convention member from Virginia. She was not impressed. "He wasn't humble," she said.
Then Lyons filed a lawsuit against the convention claiming election bylaws were not fair, which didn't go over well with some members. A judge dismissed his suit.
Hundreds of members converged in a room at the Memphis Cook Convention Center late Thursday night to await 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. 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 outgoing president, the Rev. William J. Shaw, under whom Scruggs was 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.
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.
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.