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Photo by Ian Lekus

 Tim and Vernon Tyson at a wedding celebration, 1991.

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 identifies 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.

Courtesy of Tim Tyson

 Bishop Don Bush of Body of Christ Deliverance Ministry in Birmingham, Ala., and Vernon Tyson, who accompanied Tim and a group of his college students on a 2001 trip through the civil rights battlefields of the Deep South. From Birmingham, the group went to Destrehan Plantation where 150 slaves were killed after an 1811 revolt.

“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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DIVINITY Online Edition :: Fall 2004 Volume 4 Number 1 Duke Divinity School