On a day when a presidential candidate came courting, the nation's largest black religious organization elected a new leader, hoping he will help the struggling denomination remove the stain of scandal left by its former president, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons.
The Rev. William J. Shaw, pastor of Philadelphia's White Rock Baptist Church for the past 43 years, won a tightly contested election to head the National Baptist Convention USA Inc. Shaw, who has called for a full audit of the convention's finances, defeated his closest rival, W. Franklyn Richardson, a Mount Vernon, N.Y., minister. Shaw received 3,694 votes, 243 more than Richardson.
"It is a point of beginning for us," said Shaw, who had been critical of Lyons. "Be prayerful that God will give us the kind of bonding and healing that we need."
During his campaign, Shaw said the Baptist group suggested that the organization needs to set a new course that allows it to better address contemporary issues without straying from its biblical foundation.
Most of the 11 candidates who ran for the post criticized the group's leadership structure, which invests absolute power in the president. Not only does the group's leader appoint board members, he also oversees its day-to-day operations and is in charge of the finances. As president, Shaw promised to appoint a national assembly to "rebuild the image" of the convention.
Those pledges resonated with many convention members, who said the power held by the group's president led to Lyons's undoing. Lyons, 57, resigned as convention president in March after being convicted by a Florida jury of grand theft and racketeering. He later pleaded guilty to federal tax evasion and fraud charges in connection with stealing nearly $5 million intended for the group's coffers, a scandal that tarnished the Baptist convention's proud name. Lyons is serving a 5 1/2-year sentence in a Florida prison.
Hours before Shaw's election was announced, Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes addressed the convention, telling the Baptist group that expanding economic opportunity for all Americans is "the next great civil rights battleground of the 21st century."
The appearance by Forbes, whose wooden speaking style and "flat tax" proposal came to define his doomed 1996 presidential bid, was part of his continuing effort to bring his conservative message to African Americans, a group he virtually ignored during his first run for president.
In a speech interrupted several times with warm applause, the wealthy magazine publisher laid out his plan to remove "big government" from the lives of low-income families. He called on the federal government to sharply reduce taxes, privatize Social Security and give block grants to local school systems, which could then use them to fund charter schools, school vouchers, tuition tax credits and educational savings accounts.
"No mother in the United States should be forced to send her child to a lousy school," Forbes said.
He said that while many of his proposals carry the conservative label, they would greatly benefit working-class African Americans. "My honest, simple flat tax would take 20 million low-income Americans off the tax rolls," Forbes said. "A family of four earning $36,000 would pay no federal income tax, a savings of $1,670 a year."
Forbes also told the gathering that his plan to privatize Social Security benefits would help African American males, who have shorter life expectancies than most other racial groups. Moreover, he said, it would help poor families build wealth.
"One of the great tragedies of the current system is that when you pass away, the government keeps all the money you've paid into Social Security," Forbes said. "Under my plan, that money, the fruit of your labors, is your money. If you die prematurely, you can leave it to your spouse, to your children, to your grandchildren."
Forbes also called on the Baptist convention to open a "new frontier" of faith-based schools, especially in the inner cities. "Education is about more than just our intellectual development; it's about the architecture of our souls," he said.
The appearance by Forbes before the black Baptist group offered fresh evidence of his effort to broaden his reach to minority voters. In June, Forbes named Ohio Treasurer J. Kenneth Blackwell, a prominent black Republican, his national campaign chairman. Subsequently, he named two other African Americans as campaign co-chairs: Herman Cain, a businessman from Nebraska, and Alveda King, niece of Martin Luther King Jr.
Forbes also hired two African American consultants to help facilitate his appearances before black audiences. They work with groups who host Forbes, hone his message to make clear its connection to his audience and help ensure that Forbes does not run afoul of any cultural nuances, campaign officials said.
In early August, Forbes spoke before the annual meeting of the National Medical Association, a group of black doctors. And several months ago, he spoke at a conference hosted by a large African American congregation outside Atlanta.
During his appearance here, Forbes quoted the National Urban League, invoked the struggle to end slavery and segregation and, aides said, even contributed to a convention offering. But the visit, while greeted with nodding approval and warm applause by many, left some skeptical.
The Rev. L .M. Hall, a convention delegate from Dayton, Ohio, said, "He may be here speaking to us today, but he won't show up at our churches on Sunday morning."