As a young pastor, the Rev. Vernon Tyson was invited to the home of the late United Methodist Bishop Ralph Spaulding Cushman.
“I wanted to be God’s man,” Cushman told Tyson. “From the top of my head to the soles of my feet, I want to be God’s man.”
“I thought that was on the mark,” said Tyson, who will be the keynote speaker Sunday at the Town of Garner’s fifth annual birthday celebration of the life and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. This free event is being held today at the Garner Performing Arts Center (742 W. Garner Rd.) beginning at 4 p.m. The theme for this year’s Dr. King remembrance is: “A Time To Be Seen. A Time To Be Heard. A Time to Serve.”
Tyson, 85, who lives in Raleigh with his wife, Martha, said the conversation with Cushman “marked my life.” Tyson’s determination to be “God’s man” led him to the front lines of the peace and civil rights movements as he served Methodist churches across North Carolina. “I didn’t know how to escape the issue of race and be a Christian minister,” Tyson said. “Race was put on my plate.”
Tyson’s ministry of racial reconciliation is at the heart of “Blood Done Sign My Name,” a memoir by his son, Prof. Timothy B. Tyson, which was made into a motion picture in 2010. Tyson, who has spent his life standing up for the outcasts, was ahead of his time among white Tar Heel ministers. Rather than wait for the times to change, Tyson took the lead in denouncing segregation in the South. His outspokenness in support of civil rights for blacks alienated many among his white flocks, but he knew “God’s man” had to live by “God’s laws.”
A graduate of Biscoe (N.C.) High School, Tyson earned his undergraduate degree in religion and history from Guilford College in Greensboro, where he “learned to swim against the current” with the Quakers, the traditional “peace church” that founded Guilford. Quakers, also known as The Society of Friends, also played a major role in helping to abolish slavery in the South. “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, Tyson 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, the Rev. M.E. “Jack” Tyson, 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,’” said Tyson, whose three older brothers served in the military during World War II. Tyson, who was born the same year as Martin Luther King, opted to follow the nonviolent Jesus -- just as King did -- and say no to violence and war. He decided to register as a conscientious objector rather than fight in the Korean War.
Despite his father’s opposition to a church buying war bonds, during a telephone conversation the elder Tyson urged his son to rethink his C.O. position. “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.”
After graduation from Duke Divinity School in 1957, civil rights became Tyson’s focus. Following the April 4, 1968 assassination of Dr. King, 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.
When word of the plan leaked,Tyson found his office “full of 20 angry white men” determined to stop it. “This is our church,” they told him.
Tyson’s response was, “I thought this was God’s church, and you think it is too.” Tyson went ahead with the service.
These are just a few of Tyson’s prophetic stories. Come hear more. Having Tyson on stage at GPAC is another opportunity for Garnerites to learn about our nation’s tragic segregationist history with the story being told by an eyewitness who put his very life on the line to promote civil rights for all people.
Patrick O’Neill is a member of the Town of Garner’s Martin Luther King Jr. Annual Celebration Committee.