Seeking the Holy Among the Sacred and Profane
As a young pastor, Vernon Tyson D’57 was invited to the home of the late Bishop Ralph Spaulding Cushman, whose son, Robert Cushman, had been Tyson’s professor of systematic theology at Duke.
The elder Cushman said that he had never aspired to be a great preacher, or even a great person.
“I wanted to be God’s man,” he told Tyson. “From the top of my head to the soles of my feet, I want to be God’s man… . That’s what I’ve tried to be.”
“I thought that was on the mark,” says Tyson. “That was bull’s-eye stuff. It marked my life.”
Tyson’s determination to be “God’s man” led him to the front lines of the civil rights movement as he served Methodist churches across North Carolina. “I didn’t know how to escape the issue of race and be a Christian minister,” says Tyson. “Race was put on my plate.” His ministry of racial reconciliation is at the heart of Blood Done Sign My Name , a memoir by his son, Timothy B. Tyson, a professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin- Madison. (See “Miss Amy’s Witness”).
Vernon Cephas Tyson was born to Irene and M.E. “Jack” Tyson on Nov. 29, just days after the stock market hit bottom in the Crash of ’29 that prefaced the Great Depression. A tenant farmer turned Free Will Baptist pastor, Jack Tyson transferred to the Methodist Church in 1943, bringing his six sons and a daughter with him. Although none of the sons was a pastor then, all became Methodist ministers.
At the age of 14, Vernon Tyson had a conversion experience. “I thought I was through with sin forever,” he says, chuckling. “I had given my heart to Jesus. For three days I didn’t cuss, and on the fourth day when I did cuss I was so disappointed in myself, I went out by the barn and I just cried and cried.
“Only in divinity school did I learn that Wesley said, ‘In the heart of the believer Christ reigns but sin remains.’”
Active in the Methodist Youth Fellowship, Tyson’s call to ministry “began to really come strong” when he was a rising senior at Biscoe (N.C.) High School. During a Methodist youth gathering at Lake Junaluska that summer, filled with disappointment that he had not experienced God’s call, he walked alone up a mountain the last evening of his stay.
“I didn’t hear any bell or see any lights or see an angel, but up there on the mountain path about 20 minutes it was like I’d been swimming across a great river that had a strong current and I was afraid I was going to drown in it, and I’d been struggling with it. And lo and behold I just came up and gave in to it, and rather than drowning I was buoyed. I floated. It was wonderful. “
I came down from the mountain knowing that … I was going to be a Methodist minister,” says Tyson. “I’ve had some doubts about the church, some doubts about some other things, but that has been secure ever since.”
Against the Current
Tyson earned his undergraduate degree in religion and history from Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., where he “learned to swim against the current with the Quakers. I saw them as a very small group, but with great influence because they went against the current of their times and places.”
At Guilford he met World War II conscientious objectors and heard lectures by renowned pacifists A.J. Muste and Bayard Rustin. Tyson’s growing interest in pacifism also was influenced by his father, who had resigned a part-time pastorate when the congregation insisted on buying war bonds.
“My daddy said, ‘A church ought not to be taking money off of its altar and buying bombs to kill people for whom Jesus died,’” says Tyson, whose three older brothers served in the military during World War II. Their father was not a pacifist, adds Tyson, but “he took a principled stand and it cost him.”
Once, when the World War II-era song “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” was playing on the car radio, Jack Tyson explained his nuanced objection to his sons: “I can understand about praising the Lord, and I can understand even passing the ammunition, but I don’t understand how we can put ’em together. You can’t praise the Lord and pass the ammunition at the same time.”
With World War II over, and the Korean War looming, Tyson decided to register as a conscientious objector. When he called to let his father know, the elder Tyson advised him to rethink his decision. “I said, ‘Daddy, I hadn’t called to discuss it. I called to announce to you what I’m going to do,’ and we hung up. I went to my room and cried because I had never before broken with my father over a single issue that I knew about. Here I was a 20-year-old, and I had taken a stand that was not his stand, that was even stronger than his stand.”
The mother of one of Vernon’s high school buddies was the military draft registrar in his hometown, “and to this day she’s not spoken to me,” Tyson say. “It was icy cold because her son was in the Navy.”
‘Brainwashed’ at Seminary
After graduation from Duke Divinity School in 1957, civil rights, rather than pacifism, became the dominant theme of Tyson’s ministry. “… I didn’t know how to escape the issue of race and be a Christian minister on the front line,” he say. “So it was my issue; inescapable. Race was put on my plate.”
In 1958, Tyson was appointed as associate pastor of Raleigh’s Edenton Street Methodist Church, serving under the late Rev. Howard P. Powell. Baptist firebrand the Rev. W.W. Finlator was calling on downtown Raleigh merchants to integrate their restaurants and Tyson wanted to add his name to the newspaper ad. When Powell advised him not to because it would “mark” him, Tyson replied that “it’s calling on the merchants to do something I believe they ought to do, and I want to sign it.’”
He asked why Powell wasn’t signing the ad and found integrity in the response. “Because I have never served an interracial meal in my fellowship hall here at this church,” said Powell. “How can I go ask a secular merchant to do something that my church hasn’t done?”
“I said, ‘Dr. Powell, you’ve been here 12 years. I just got here. That’s your problem, it’s not my problem. If I’m an embarrassment to you I’ll not sign it, but that’s the only reason I will not sign it.’”
Powell told Tyson “don’t stand back on that account.” Although many parishioners congratulated him after the ad appeared in The (Raleigh) News & Observer , a prominent church woman sent for him.
“I saw your name in the paper, and it greatly disturbed me,” she said. “I know your professors have brainwashed you. You’re a good boy, and you come from good stock. I know your family, and you’re a God-loving man. I’m so concerned about you.”
In response, Tyson said, “‘Thank you for loving me enough to want to speak to me. Will you pray for me?’” I got on my knees beside her chair, and I took her hand and laid it up on my head and she prayed for me and I hugged her and kissed her on the cheek and I left.”
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.”
Father and Son
Although they offer high praise for each other, Vernon Tyson and his son disagree on some things. The elder Tyson notes the gains of the civil rights movement, while Tim says the movement was a failure in many ways.
Despite passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, which Tim Tyson calls “important achievements,” he says many of the movement’s goals never were realized.
“Most of what Dr. King was marching about didn’t happen. The generation of liberals that my father identi- fies with lost. They were crushed. They are dinosaurs; gone, defeated.”
While Vernon Tyson says he understands his son’s conclusions, he says there’s more to the story. “Tim didn’t go through where we had come from before he was born,” says Vernon. “We were making progress. He says the weak tea of moderation wouldn’t cut it. Well, the truth is, about the only thing that was possible was the weak tea of moderation. … Black power only came after the weak tea of moderation couldn’t go any farther than it went.”
Vernon Tyson does not describe his ministry as heroic, but says he was used by some power beyond himself. “It was just an issue that was put on my plate,” he says. “I didn’t go looking for it.”
Watching his father deal with conflict made a mark on Tim Tyson. “When you get right down to it, my dad put all his chips on the line. He risked his life and his livelihood and he kept his sense of humor. And most of the time he kept his job and he went on.
“I think one of the great things that can be learned from my father is that he was always a happy warrior. He measured his success in strong happy children and good times with his family and enjoying the Lord’s creation, and in his love for my mother. He measured his life in happiness. In that sense he’s an enormous success, and nothing that his adversaries could do to him ever dampened that. I can’t imagine anyone more successful.”
In the years since desegregation, father and son— Tyson and Tyson—have worked together. In the epilogue of Blood Done Sign My Name , Tim recounts a spontaneous prayer his father led for 40 students who joined the Tysons on a 2001 bus trip through the civil rights battlefields of the South. The prayer came after a visit to New Orleans’ Destrehan Plantation, where 150 slaves were killed following an 1811 revolt.
… We, too, have been tempted to love things and use people, when you have called us to love people and use things. We ask your forgiveness for our complicity in these evils, and in the evils of our own time, and pray your healing for our hearts. Thank you for the love that binds us one to another, and to our homes and families, and to you.
Patrick O’Neill is a freelance writer based in Garner, N.C. His most recent article for Divinity was a profile of the Rev. Seth Lartay D’90 in the Winter 2004 issue.
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