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Author leads pastors in dialogue on race, civil rights
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"We need to make some changes," author Tim Tyson tells Western North Carolina pastors.

Dec. 5, 2005

By Neill Caldwell

HICKORY, N.C. (UMNS) — While reflecting on the often violent civil rights struggles of the 1960s, author Tim Tyson challenged a group of United Methodist pastors to continue to talk about America’s struggle with racism.

Since the 1960s, things have improved and worsened at the same time, he said.

“We have an expanding black middle class but greater poverty than ever before,” he said. “We’re more segregated than we were in the 1970s and are rapidly moving toward a re-segregated public school system.

“Sunday mornings are still very segregated,” he continued. “The United Methodist Church is short on strong black congregations. If we’re to find a place for ourselves and survive as a church that’s making a strong witness in the world, we need to make some changes.”

Those comments came during a question-and-answer session following remarks that Tyson made to clergy members of the Western North Carolina Annual (regional) Conference Nov. 15. The Elders’ Day Apart, held at Christ United Methodist Church, was sponsored by the Duke Divinity School.

Tyson is a senior research scholar at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and a visiting professor of American Christianity and Southern Culture at the divinity school. Before that, he was a professor of African-American studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

The day included a panel discussion by four retired conference pastors who were active during the civil rights era, and a time for small group interchange on questions about race relations.

The son of a long-time minister in the North Carolina Conference, Tyson is the author of Blood Done Sign My Name, a book about the May 12, 1970, murder of a young black man in the central North Carolina tobacco town of Oxford. Tyson was in grade school when the killing happened, and his next-door neighbor — and playmate’s father — was charged with the crime. It became a life-changing event for Tyson. “Oxford has burned in my memory for 30 years now,” he said.

Henry Marrow was a 23-year-old Army veteran who was chased down by three white men after allegedly using profanity in front of a white woman in a convenience store. Marrow was shot in the back, and as he lay helpless in the gravel road the men crushed his skull with the butts of their weapons and then shot him in the head.

“The prosecutor said they killed him as you or I would kill a snake,” Tyson said. The crime led to several nights of violence in the community.

The story “is not just about Oxford,” Tyson said, “but is not that different from what was going on all across the country” in the early 1970s. “The story of Oxford is the story of America.”

Tyson said his father, Rev. Vernon Tyson, was a white liberal preacher who was not directly involved in the civil rights movement but who strongly supported it.

“Once or twice a year he would give a sermon reminding his church that God did not invent the racial caste system we were living under,” Tyson said. “He asked black preachers and black choirs to come and participate in worship. And every couple of years there was a group of people who wanted him out because of it. That was the church I grew up in, and it made me mad.

“These days it seems the entire Bible is apparently all about homosexuality,” he added. “In those days it was apparently all about race.”

Tyson went back to Oxford while in college and began interviewing residents about the crime as part of a history paper. He met people like Eddie McCoy, a black Vietnam veteran who had organized black residents of the community from the local pool hall. “Eddie had a very ‘conservative’ theory of politics: You have what you can take and you keep what you can hold. Power speaks to power, and weakness gets nothing.”

Only when the town’s economic base — the huge warehouses holding stores of tobacco — began going up in flames did the whites holding power in Oxford begin to make changes.

“We have this image of the civil rights movement being very spiritual, very nonviolent,” said Tyson, “which bears little resemblance to what actually happened. We tell each other the stories we want to hear.”

As an example, Tyson cited recent obituaries about civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks that credited her “tired feet” as the reason she refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man, not that she was a trained civil rights worker who also worked with the NAACP.

“We just want to hear about a tired old lady,” Tyson said. “We want the whole thing to be resolved in 22 minutes plus commercials … a kind of ‘just add water’ redemption story.”

Tyson said the book has given people in Oxford and elsewhere a “place to start talking” about race relations. “I’ve been back regularly and spoken at city hall and at the local high school, and we’ve had a pretty good public conversation. There are still deep scars and hard feelings on both sides. But there is a strong sense that the old way was wrong and we need to find a new way.”

Attendees at the clergy event were especially moved by the stories of their four colleagues — the Revs. Belvin Jessup, Hubert Clinard, Jim Ferree and Paul Starnes — who directly participated in the struggle for civil rights. The pastors, two black and two white, each shared a few of their experiences from the ’60s.

Starnes related that many of the events described in Blood Done Sign My Name were similar to what he encountered in his ministry. “It was a difficult and dangerous time,” he said. “I love to be loved and like to be liked, and it was difficult to know that if you spoke those words you would not be liked and even hated by some.”

Starnes, who is white, told of difficulties at one church where several church members also belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. Those difficulties led to a cross burning on the front lawn of his parsonage.

Jessup said that reading Tyson’s book brought back many memories. “It’s difficult for me to relive that history over and over, but I appreciate the book. It’s so prophetic and stark.”

Clinard said he once asked his district superintendent if he should be worried about future appointments if he continued to be active in supporting civil rights. “His response was ‘prophets always die in the streets alone.’ So that was it.

Ferree said black pastors were encouraged to “play it safe” and not make waves. “It happens even now,” he said, “where you see pastors who are content to ‘play it safe.’”

*Caldwell is a freelance writer based in High Point, N.C.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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Audio Interview

Tim Tyson, 'Blood Done Sign My Name' (NPR)

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