This story incorrectly said that Oxford resident Henry Marrow, who died in 1970, was a Vietnam veteran. Marrow did not serve in Vietnam.
GARNER - The Rev. Vernon Tyson says he’s not a civil rights man.
Instead, Tyson, who as a white pastor backed integration efforts in North Carolina and served as peacemaker after the controversial 1970 killing of a black man in Oxford, has said he’s always wanted to be “God’s man.” A “Martin Luther King Jr.” man.
“Martin Luther King came out of the Gospel,” Tyson said Sunday. “He was raised out of the Gospel.”
Addressing hundreds of people on Sunday at a packed annual service honoring King in Garner, the 85-year-old Tyson was one of several speakers and singers to note King’s legacy and message. Although those at the Garner Performing Arts Center stressed different aspects of King’s legacy, several speakers concentrated on the impact of his Christian message.
Tyson, who was born the same year as King, said that he never laid eyes on him but felt as though he knew him. After King’s assassination in 1968, for instance, Tyson felt compelled to volunteer his white church in Oxford to host an interracial memorial service.
His offer drew backlash from several of his church members, who told him, “This is our church, and you cannot have it here,” according to excerpts from “Blood Done Sign My Name,” a book written by Tyson’s son, Duke University professor Timothy Tyson.
“The last time I checked, it was God’s church,” Tyson told the church members at the time. He continued with the service.
Tyson, who now lives in Raleigh, may be most known for trying to help ease racial tensions after the murder of a 23-year-old man in 1970. While Tyson was still serving at the Oxford church, Henry Marrow, a black man, was beaten and then shot to death for allegedly insulting a white woman.
When Marrow’s killer, a reported white supremacist, was later acquitted, protesters rioted and destroyed white businesses in town. Tyson tried to reconcile the divide by serving as the go-between for both racial communities, an effort that many think led to his transfer to a Wilmington church not long after Marrow’s death.
“I came at this because I was trying to live the Gospel,” Tyson said Sunday. “That asked of me to love my fellow man. Who is my fellow man? Black people are my fellow man.”
The town of Garner started the annual King service five years ago, after Mayor Ronnie Williams called on Dwight Rodgers and several other residents to form a special committee.
Rodgers, 63, who chairs the King celebration committee, said the group envisioned a service that would draw people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. A standing-room-only crowd turned out for the first service – more than 400 people.
“It’s all about bringing all people together to remember King’s dream,” Rodgers said.
Rodgers recites King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the ceremony every year. He said he’s delivered the speech publicly since 1968, when he memorized it in high school.
“It’s something that sticks with me, by the grace of God,” Rodgers said.
Garner resident Janet McKoy, who attended the celebration for the first time this year after recently moving to town, said it’s important not only to remember King’s dream but also to help make it a reality.
“We are not as far as we need to be,” said McKoy, who learned about the service at the local senior center. “The children need to learn about this.”
Sixth-grader Donovan Summers has studied King’s message, and he wants to share it with his peers. During a speech he gave Sunday titled “Code of Conduct: You Better Watch Your Mouth,” Summers said King showed society how to stand up for what is right and be respectful.
“Let’s stop tearing each other down,” he said. People should start loving and respecting each other instead, Summers said.
Art show honors women
For the past three years, the Garner Performing Arts Center has put on an art show that coincides with the service. This year’s exhibit is a tribute to African-American women – the mothers, sisters, grandmothers, aunts and cousins to whom featured artist LeGrant Taylor said he often pays homage.
“They have a lot of influence on our lives,” Taylor said.
This year’s show features acrylic paintings and mixed media pieces from seven artists, whose works showcasing women with power, love, joy and sorrow will remain up through February.
Debbie Dunn, the Garner Performing Arts Center’s cultural arts and events manager, said that after brainstorming the theme for this year’s show with other staff, she asked Taylor if he and other artists had enough works to fill up a gallery. He responded with a resounding “Yes,” Dunn said.
“The galleries seem to bring people to us,” Dunn said. “It’s nice to tie art to history.”