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Minister who tried to bring an NC town together after a racially motivated murder dies at 89

Dr. Vernon Tyson, left, Donovan Summers, 11, middle, and Garner Mayor Ronnie Williams listen to Dwight Rodgers recite “I Have a Dream” during the fifth annual Celebration of the Life and Legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Garner Performing Arts Center Jan. 18. Donovan also spoke during the event.
Dr. Vernon Tyson, left, Donovan Summers, 11, middle, and Garner Mayor Ronnie Williams listen to Dwight Rodgers recite “I Have a Dream” during the fifth annual Celebration of the Life and Legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Garner Performing Arts Center Jan. 18. Donovan also spoke during the event. File photo

The Rev. Vernon Tyson, a retired United Methodist minister who worked in churches throughout North Carolina, died Saturday at his Raleigh home at age 89, according to his son, historian Tim Tyson.

The Rev. Tyson’s work on racial reconciliation as a minister in Oxford was central to his son’s 2004 memoir “Blood Done Sign My Name.”

Later, the elder Tyson vocally opposed the 2012 state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. In 2013, he was arrested during a Moral Monday demonstration in Raleigh.

“Rev. Tyson was devoted to the teachings of Jesus, particularly those related to love, mercy, justice, equality, and our obligations to the poor and vulnerable among us,” Tim Tyson wrote in an obituary he prepared. “These convictions led him to stand up for racial justice, public education, voting rights, and equal rights for LGBT citizens. He took seriously the Biblical mandate to welcome foreigners and immigrants. He became a conscientious objector to war in 1952 and opposed war and the death penalty all his life.”

“Blood Done Sign My Name” recounts the racially motivated killing of a black veteran in Oxford in 1970, the suspects’ acquittals by an all-white jury and the racial unrest sparked by the killing. Vernon Tyson led an all-white Methodist Church in Oxford, 40 miles north of Raleigh, and his efforts to foster cross-racial dialogue forced him out of town.

“He was trying very hard to be a peace-maker, meeting with the witnesses, and the families, and the community leaders, pulling together ministers at his church and in his own ministry trying to be a voice for justice and for peace,” Tim Tyson, a senior research scholar at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, said in an interview Saturday.

His father wasn’t punished for his work in Oxford, Tim Tyson said. He was sent to a church in Wilmington.

During an appearance at UNC Asheville with Tim Tyson, the Rev. Tyson spoke about his work in the civil rights era. Their appearance was posted to YouTube.

The Rev. Tyson spoke of his life as a “three-legged stool” of love, truth and timing.

“I grew up knowing two things were very important,” he said. “One was love. If you didn’t have love, you really didn’t have anything important. I also knew that truth was important. If your life was built on a lie, it wouldn’t stand.”

His first church appointment was in 1952, two years before the U.S. Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional.

“Rosa Parks sat down, Martin Luther King stood up, and something shifted in America,” he said. “I was caught on the front lines of that dilemma. So it is that the struggles that I went through lots of people went through in my generation. My story is really the story of people without number.”

Tim Tyson said he and his father often traveled together to talk about the book, and his father was on set for every day of shooting for the 2010 movie.

“My father has put a little bit of ink on every page I’ve ever published,” Tim Tyson said Saturday.

The Rev. Tyson worked at churches throughout the state, including in Chapel Hill, Sanford, and at Edenton Street United Methodist Church in Raleigh.

“Vernon was a great soul,” said Hope Morgan Ward, a bishop of the United Methodist Church.

“He was both a preacher and a prophet and a pastor,” she said. “He was brave. He was strong. He was a wonderful husband, father and grandfather. He mentored many clergy, including myself.”

Tim Tyson said his father loved “a very broad range of people,” including those who disagreed with him.

“He taught us both with his words and with his example that you needed to have the courage to be a prophetic voice but that nobody can hear you scolding them. Nobody can hear you if they don’t understand that you love and respect them.”

Ned Hill, a retired pastor, said he worked with the elder Tyson in Chapel Hill from 1978 to 1980, and again at Edenton Street from 1984 to 1987.

Tyson was one in a family of Methodist ministers that included his father and five brothers, Hill said.

Hill remembered him as a great mentor and a pastor people turned to for comfort.

“Vernon was very unique in that he was deeply steeped in the scripture — so technically astute and a great proclaimer of the word. By the same token, he was hugely prophetic in both his preaching and his work,” Hill said.

Tyson would listen with compassion to congregants’ troubles, Hill said.

“Whenever there were family crises, the one we would all call would be Vernon,” Hill said. “He was such a quiet presence. As much as he could be prophetic and be out there, he could be pastoral. He was well-known for his ability to simply sit with families in their dark and very difficult times. His very presence would bring them comfort.”

Tyson is survived by his wife, Martha, and three children, Tim and daughters Martha Buie and Julie. A son, Vernon C. “Vern” Tyson Jr., died in 2017.

Tim Tyson wrote that his parents recently celebrated their 65th anniversary.

The Rev. Tyson’s memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 5, at Edenton Street United Methodist Church in Raleigh.

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