In a ringing denunciation of Republican and anti-abortion groups' opposition to surgeon general nominee Henry W. Foster Jr., the president of the nation's largest black Baptist denomination strongly suggested Friday that race had become an issue in the faltering nomination.
"We are sick and tired that every time a black man in particular (is nominated) we get into a problem. He's castigated, humiliated, upbraided and downgraded," said the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, who was elected president of the 8.5-million member National Baptist Convention last year.
"The humiliation has to be felt by all African American people," Lyons told a Downtown Los Angeles news conference. "We continue to suffer this kind of thing."
Foster, who is black, has come under attack by anti-abortion groups--including religious broadcaster Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition--since it was disclosed that he has performed abortions. Although Foster first reported performing fewer than a dozen, he later conceded that he is the doctor of record in 39 abortions since 1973.
Lyons' defense of the embattled Foster, a university leader and practicing obstetrician-gynecologist, comes at a time when even some Democrats say his confirmation is in doubt.
Lyons' remarks were also seen as a signal of his intention to mold the National Baptist Convention into a formidable political force in the years ahead, to counterbalance the growing electoral might of the Christian right.
Robertson and his Christian Coalition do not speak for all Christians, Lyons said. "The Christian Coalition has pushed this too far and gone too far to the right," he said. "There is another Christian voice. It is the African American voice."
On Friday, a spokesman for the Christian Coalition vigorously denied that opposition to Foster was based on race.
"I think the effort to make this a racist issue is really another effort by the liberal left to pump smoke in front of a very troubled and very weak nominee," coalition spokesman Mike Russell said in an interview from Virginia Beach, Va. "This issue has never been about race and has never been solely about abortion," said Russell, referring to Foster's "lack of candor" on his abortion record.
Lyons defended Foster's record. He said that although the nominee had performed abortions, he had also "preached and advocated" sexual abstinence. "That's where we stand," Lyons said.
He charged that opponents have taken Foster's record out of context and that the nominee is the victim of rumor and innuendo.
Lyons said Robertson has pitted himself against blacks by opposing publicly funded abortions.
"The fact of the matter is that without that law in place our young girls would take abortion into their own hands," Lyons said. "If anyone opposes (legal abortions) I believe you have to look and say they are actually against black people and their welfare."
At the same time, Lyons assailed House Speaker Newt Gingrich's "contract with America," including its welfare reforms and plans to scale back affirmative action programs, calling the legislative agenda anti-black.
"We are also conservative," Lyons said. "We're not a bunch of freeloaders."
Still, he said, blacks are very often the last hired and first fired. "We're saying affirmative action has not gone too far. White folks are not hurt. They still have all the power and the money," he said.
Lyons said it is time for black churches to become politically active again, as they were during the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. A conference will be held in June in San Diego to develop a voter registration and get-out-the-vote organization in time for the 1996 elections, he said.
Lyons was in Los Angeles to announce that the National Baptist Convention will hold its annual meeting at the Los Angeles Convention Center in 1997. A convention center spokesman said the meeting would pump $10 million into the local economy.