Tim Tyson: Born Into Dissent

Jan 14, 2019

Timothy Tyson is known as an award-winning writer and historian. His books “Blood Done Sign My Name” and “The Blood of Emmett Till” capture a point in history when the fight for civil rights fostered a South ripe with fear, violence and anger. Tyson witnessed much of this first hand as the son of Reverend Vernon Tyson, a respected leader in the fight for social justice.

Tyson remembers his family being run out of Oxford, North Carolina because his father took to the pulpit and supported the Civil Rights movement. Tyson’s family made Wilmington their new home, a town that was embroiled in violence as residents fought desegregation. These were the makings of Tim Tyson’s curiosity about the racial divide. On Dec. 29, 2018, Rev. Tyson died at age 89.

His son joins host Frank Stasio to talk about the loss of his beloved father and the events that hailed him as a Civil Rights activist. Tyson will share the stories behind his work and how his father’s life inspired his memoir and a Hollywood movie.

Tyson now a senior research scholar at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and adjunct professor of American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He will share stories of his early days as an educator in the Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and how his Emmett Till book helped bring justice to the black community. 


Interview Highlights


On his father and uncle’s push for civil rights:

In those days, the only issue in the church was race. And I knew that’s how you got in trouble if you were a preacher. And you had to walk the line … People don’t listen to you scolding them. But if they know that you love them and they know that you respect them then they might hear you. They were all trying to push the church toward seeing all God’s children as equals.

On the murder of Henry Marrow in Oxford, North Carolina in 1970:

[A] boy that I played with virtually every day told me that his father and his two brothers had killed this young black man for saying something at the store to his sister-in-law, Judy. And they had run him from the store and shot him from behind about 50 to 150 feet off the property. He had not touched anybody … This isn’t a murder mystery. This happened in front of quite a few people.


On how Rev. Vernon Tyson used the pulpit to preach about racism:

[He said] we were sitting on 350 years of wrong and it was a keg of dynamite under our feet and we had to deal with this. It couldn’t wait. We waited too long and we had to deal with this. And it was going to cause some pain, but it was going to be good for everybody.   


My father always said that being a dissident on race made him a better preacher - Tim Tyson

 How Tyson’s  principal tackled racial violence at his school in Wilmington:

He got us in a room and talked to us about how we had to stop this business. And so we had assemblies every week and we spoke to our classmates and then we played music and sang together and held hands, the whole student body. And it really did calm things down at our school.

On the truth about the 1898 “race riot” of Wilmington:

In the late 1890s a black and white interracial political coalition called the Fusion Movement … Swept the state legislature. Won both U.S. Senate seats, the governor’s race, never lost a statewide election. And they were overthrown by the conservatives by force … The white supremacy campaigns … overthrew the state government including the city of Wilmington. That full story has never been told.

On healing the racial wounds:

One of the big problems is we don’t know who we are. We don’t know where we came from. We still have that question that I had when I was 11 years old. How did this mess get started? … If you’re trying to change history and you’re trying to make a better world then you’ve got to know where you came from.