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Baptists in a Corner Over $5-Million Tyson Offer, Rape Conviction


The fighter is a street-tough kid from Brooklyn who rose from a reform school background to become heavyweight boxing champion of the world.

The minister is a leader of one of the first successful boycotts of segregated busing in the South and the president of the nation's largest black church.

What a match it must have seemed back in January, 1990, when the Rev. T. J. Jemison announced that Mike Tyson had offered $5 million to help the National Baptist Convention U.S.A. pay for its new World Baptist Center.

What a difference two years can make.

The dreams of both men have turned from greater glory to survival as Tyson faces being sentenced Thursday to up to 60 years in prison for raping an 18-year-old Baptist Sunday school teacher.

Jemison and other male Baptist Convention leaders stood by Tyson throughout the rape trial, leading rallies and even starting a national petition drive for a suspended sentence after the fighter was convicted of rape and criminal deviate assault.

Tyson still is a hero to leading churchmen, but the church's only repayment has been growing criticism within the black religious community about the partisan support for the boxer and the apparent lack of compassion for the victim.

"I think that the church is supposed to stand up for the right thing," said Ethel Barnes of New Hope Baptist Church in Buffalo, N.Y. "Is there any excuse for a man to rape a woman in the first place?"

Many Baptist women speculate that the leadership's support has a lot to do with Tyson's status as the denomination's $5-million man--even though, according to Jemison, he has yet to contribute a penny.

"It's centered around that promise," said Mary O. Ross, president of the denomination's Women's Auxiliary Convention.

Other observers speculate that the leadership is mindful of the scarcity of black heroes, and note that an effective way to bring down a black man in the past was to falsely accuse him of rape.

"Mr. Tyson is one of a very few in number of modern-day African-American heroes," says the petition seeking leniency. It also says that despite the verdict, "a lot of people still feel Tyson to be innocent."

As head of a denomination of 32,000 churches that took in a total of $2 million in 1991, the offer of $5 million from one source must have seemed a godsend to Jemison, who put the church in debt to realize his father's dream of a headquarters the black church body could call its own. Also, he hoped, it would quiet critics who contended that the $10-million cost would be better spent on the poor.

And for Tyson, the pledge offered a much-needed image boost. The boxer was coming off a rocky marriage to actress Robin Givens, who accused him of beating her.

The church leadership's support started the moment Tyson was accused of raping Desiree Washington, a Miss Black America contestant, in an Indianapolis hotel room last July.

Before the trial, Jemison called Washington, but the conversation centered on Tyson's pain, not hers. "We talked to her about the trial and we were hoping she would not use the trial to hurt this fellow," Jemison said.

The FBI is investigating Washington's contention that she was offered $1 million to drop the allegations against Tyson before the trial began; she has refused to say who approached her, and church officials have denied offering her any money.

At times, Washington became an object of scorn, even though she is a longtime member of a Baptist church in Rhode Island, a vice president of the church's usher board and a Sunday school teacher.

Jemison did not return several calls to his home and office but in a statement after Tyson's conviction, he said his desire to help the boxer did not indicate he wanted to hurt Washington, or black women in general.

"However, I am concerned in general about the black male and his plight," he said.

Dean G. Kilpatrick, director of the Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center at the Medical University of South Carolina, said the ministers' position is partly understandable.

"Part of the problem that the African-American community has with rape is that historically rape was a charge that was basically used to keep in their place uppity blacks," he said.

But Kilpatrick said it is a long way from the false accusations of earlier this century to the rape of a woman whose only mistake was to trust a black celebrity:

"Are we really saying, or do we want to say, if you make a mistake in judgment, that gives someone the right to rape you?"

Cain Felder, professor of New Testament at Howard University Divinity School and the author of "Troubling Biblical Waters: Race, Class and Family," said he can understand the concerns about a black man receiving a just sentence, but not the partisan support for Tyson before the case was heard.

"It's an embarrassment. It's difficult. Many of us regret it," Felder said. "It's certainly not the most glorious moment for the convention."

And what happens now to the fighter and the minister?

Sentencing patterns indicate that Tyson is likely to receive a dozen years or less, and any prison term would cut into the prime of his boxing career.

And if Jemison sticks by the constitutional reforms he put in place after he ousted his predecessor in 1982, he would have to step down as president of the National Baptist Convention in 1994.

The church headquarters that Jemison's father once dreamed of are open, an impressive structure in Nashville, Tenn., replete with a 162-foot spire, 3,000-seat auditorium and 300-seat choir loft.

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