Friday, February 08, 2002

Baptists won't boycott city

But group adds conditions to decision

By Kevin Aldridge
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Leaders of the Progressive National Baptist Convention announced Thursday that their convention tentatively plans to come to Cincinnati in August despite a call for a boycott.

        The convention will stay if:

[photo] The Rev. Dr. C. Mackey Daniels announces at City Hall Thursday that the Progressive National Baptist Convention will come to Cincinnati.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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        • Black-owned vendors get greater access to the convention's business.

        • The city relaxes its curfew for youth.

        • City officials restart “unconditional negotiations” with African-American leaders about such issues as police relations and economic inclusion.

        The organization is also recommending a full hearing in Cincinnati, presided over by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, to examine the issues of economic inclusion and police relations.

        Mayor Charlie Luken said most of the things the Baptists asked for seem reasonable.

        “I didn't hear any "Do this or else.' I think they're a mature organization, and they don't have to resort to threats,” he said. “I made it clear that I was willing to talk to anyone, but I also made clear that people who want to call each other names or run our city down — those people are hard to have a dialogue with.”

        The group, also known as National Baptist Convention USA Inc., encompasses more than 1,800 churches and 2.5 million people. The convention — set for Aug. 5-8 — is expected to attract 8,000 to 15,000 people and generate between $8 million and $18 million in the area's economy, making it the largest convention planned for the city this year.

        The Rev. Dr. C. Mackey Daniels and others leading the Baptist group met Thursday with Mr. Luken and other city and Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau officials for almost two hours before an afternoon press conference on the steps of City Hall.

        The Rev. Dr. Daniels, a Louisville minister, said the predominantly African-American denomination was prepared to take the mayor at his word that the requested changes will happen.

        “It is not the intention of the Progressive National Baptist Convention to cause, or inflict upon this community, hurt,” he said. “I do not believe that the city of Cincinnati would like to see thousands of hotel rooms empty .... We see this as an opportunity to minister to a sick city that needs healing.”

        Baptist leaders denied that their contractual obligations with downtown hotels played a role in the decision. Pulling out of Cincinnati could have cost the group nearly $1 million.

        The Progressive Baptists are already involved in litigation with the Marriott Waterside Hotel in Tampa, Fla., where more than 800 delegates attending a convention last year marched out of the hotel after allegations that a white hotel worker spit in a punch bowl.

        The group's decision on Cincinnati came one day after Bill Cosby's cancellation of two March 15 performances at the Aronoff Center for the Arts. Mr. Cosby said in a statement that he feels “uncomfortable” performing in the city's racially charged environment.

        Mr. Luken said the Baptist convention is much more significant economically than Mr. Cosby's performances, though losing such a high-profile name “does not bode well for Cincinnati.”

        “No matter what the Baptists do, at least they had the kindness and decency to come talk to me,” Mr. Luken said.

        “We feel our mission is a different mission than Mr. Cosby's,” said the Rev. Dr. Daniels. “As Christian people, we should be able to communicate and work together.”

        Iris Roley, a member of the Black United Front, which met for five hours Wednesday with the Baptists, said this does not represent a setback in the group's boycott effort, saying getting a group this large to cancel a convention this late would be a long shot. However, she added that the very fact that the Progressive Baptists would even consider it speaks volumes about the problems in Cincinnati.

        The Progressive Baptists are no strangers to the struggle for civil rights and have pulled conventions before. In 1999, they were one of several groups that moved meetings out of South Carolina because of the state's desire to keep the Confederate battle flag flying atop its statehouse.

        “We do not retreat from issues, but we use the leverage of our position to make changes where changes are necessary,” the Rev. Dr. Daniels said.

        Edgar Pillow, a 60-year-old College Hill resident who attended the press conference, said he thinks the Progressive Baptists are sincere about wanting to work things out, but “they don't know who they're dealing with.”

        Mr. Pillow said the police and city officials have had ample opportunity to address issues of police brutality and the exclusion of blacks and other minorities from the city's economic development plans.

        “You can't trust the mayor,” he said. “They've failed to do anything, and there's no reason to believe they will.”

        But Progressive Baptist leaders said that at the conclusion of their convention, they will conduct an exit evaluation of the city's racial climate. The group pledged that if any of the issues outlined are not addressed, it will declare “that the city of Cincinnati is not convention-friendly.”

        The group expressed particular concern with how more than 4,500 young people coming to the convention will deal with the city's curfew and police. The curfew calls for children 15 and younger to be off the streets by 10 p.m., and 16- and 17-year-olds to be in by midnight. The curfew is extended an hour on nights of big events.

        William Harris — youth minister at Zion Baptist Church in Avondale, the host church for the convention, said his message to young people will be: “Be careful. Beware.”

        The Progressive National Baptist Convention was founded in Cincinnati in 1961, after a group of churches — led by the Rev. L.V. Booth of Zion Baptist in Avondale — broke away from the National Baptist Convention over leadership issues.

        The Rev. James H. Cantrell, pastor of Zion Baptist Church, said the convention is the culmination of nearly three years of work. The Avondale pastor likened the convention to the planned Billy Graham Mission, which has been called a vehicle for racial healing.

        “We have some prophets among our conventions that are equal to or greater than the Billy Grahams of the land,” the Rev. Mr. Cantrell said. “Cincinnati could stand some spiritual medicine.”

       Randy Tucker and Gregory Korte of the Enquirer contributed to this report.

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