The Oxford Years
That early encounter steeled Tyson for conflicts to come. A decade later, he accepted the pastorate of Oxford United Methodist Church, just a few miles up I-85 north of Durham. At the time, there was no indication that Oxford would become the scene of one of the state’s most violent civil rights struggles.
After Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, Tyson volunteered his church for an ecumenical interracial memorial service. He and the other pastors agreed to announce the afternoon service, which they knew would be controversial, from their respective pulpits that Sunday morning.
But word of the plan leaked, and Tyson found his office that morning “full of 20 angry white men” determined to stop it. “This is our church,” they told him. “This church was here before you got here, and it will be here after you leave. Our fathers and mothers built this church. You didn’t build it.”
Tyson’s response was, “I thought this was God’s church, and you think it is too.”
Opening the Book of Discipline , Tyson said, “We are Methodists, and we have a method and the discipline says I can determine the number and nature of the services in the sanctuary. If the bishop wants to stop me, he can. Here’s his telephone number. You call him, and if he tells me not to, I won’t. But other than that, I will.”
At that point, a lay leader in the church stepped forward. “First of all I want to say that I think Martin Luther King is the worst enemy America’s had in my lifetime. I know the preacher doesn’t agree with that, but that’s how I feel and that’s how you all feel.” Tyson said the others in the room nodded in agreement.
“But I want to say one other thing. Preacher, if anybody around here knocks you down, I’m going to pick you up.” The man’s comments ended the discussion. “That’s grace,” Tyson says.
Henry Marrow’s Murder
On May 11, 1970, Henry Marrow, a 23-year-old black Vietnam veteran, walked toward a white-owned store at an Oxford crossroads. Something Marrow said was interpreted as a slight to a young white woman. He was chased from the store by owner Robert Teel and his two sons, who beat and then fatally shot him.
The next day, 10-year-old Tim Tyson was told by his playmate Gerald Teel, “Daddy and Roger and ’em shot ’em a nigger.”
This brutal event altered forever Tim Tyson’s life and work and became the centerpiece of Blood Done Sign My Name.
Marrow’s murder led to riots and fire bombings of white businesses and tobacco warehouses in Oxford. At a meeting held at a segregated black school, Vernon Tyson heard an eyewitness account of the murder. “It was awful,” he says. “It would leave you speechless.”
Eager to help reconcile the community, Tyson again found himself virtually alone. “I felt like somebody in this tense time needed to be a person who could go into the black community and into the white community and have some relationships and keep the doors of communication open.”
In that spirit, Tyson attended Marrow’s funeral “trying to be visible, trying to be in the position of making the peace and keeping the peace.”
He and his friend the poet Thad Stem Jr. were the only whites to attend Marrow’s funeral. “I just felt the need of being there,” says Tyson.
The two men accompanied a large group of mourners as they left the church and walked to the graveyard to bury Marrow. But, when the crowd left the graveside to march to the town’s Confederate memorial, Tyson and Stem dropped out of the march.
“That was more than I had planned to do,” he says. “I was not an agitator. I concluded that you can’t play every role. If you’re an agitator, you can’t be a peacemaker.
“It didn’t seem to be my function as a priest and a prophet pastor. A New Testament pastor is both a priest and prophet. He is a priestly person who is a keeper of the altar and the church house. And he is a prophet in that he seeks to speak for God. Those two things were uppermost in my mind.”
Approximately six weeks later, Tyson was transferred from Oxford to Wilmington, a move many in the community saw as retribution for his support. Tyson sees it differently: “I did think that I had probably played my role there,” he says. “I was ready to leave. I was scheduled to leave.”
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