Grawemeyer religion winners says U.S. has inaccurate memory of civil rights
April 19th, 2007
“Our memory’s pretty bad” when it comes to the civil rights movement in the United States, author Timothy Tyson told his audience at the Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Louisville April 18.
Tyson was among the 2007 recipients of the University of Louisville Grawemeyer Awards who came to town to receive their awards and talk about their work.
“We tell ourselves that the civil rights movement was a non-violent call in our history,” Tyson said, noting that as a nation, the United States is telling itself a lie about who it is and where it’s been.
He made his point by relating two stories from his own experience.
The first took place in 1964 when Tyson’s father Vernon, a Methodist minister, invited Samuel Proctor, president of North Carolina A&T University, to speak at his church on “race relations Sunday.”
Proctor’s acceptance of the invitation sparked concern among church members. Vernon Tyson received telephone death threats; some people offered to “redecorate the house with dynamite,” Tyson said.
But the violence was abated when Amy Womble, an older woman and first-grade teacher, spoke to a group of the church’s board members the night before Proctor was scheduled to preach.
Womble told a story about a black airman in Chapel Hill, N.C., Tyson said, who saved the life of a white teen presumed dead after a car accident. The airman had to remove the boy’s tongue from his throat and give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
Then, Tyson contined, Womble said to the group: “‘I want all of you fathers to tell me something. Now which one of you fathers would have said to that airman, ‘Now, don’t you run your black fingers down my boy’s white throat’? Which of y’all would have told that airman, ‘Don’t you dare put your black lips on my boy’s mouth’?”
The board voted to stand with Vernon Tyson. People in the meeting had emotional changes of heart; Proctor spoke the next morning at the church without incident. He preached on Jacob, not race, Tyson said.
When his own family talks about the civil rights movement, Tyson said, they remember that story. They do not talk much about another story that affected them and was the focus of “Blood Done Signed My Name,” his Grawemeyer Award-winning book.
In 1970, Robert Teel, the father of one of Tyson’s playmates, and some other white men murdered Henry Marrow, a black man, in broad daylight.
The next night there were riots in Oxford, a town of about 10,000 split evenly between black and white. Merchants replaced plate-glass windows with boards in anticipation. African American veterans of the Vietnam war firebombed buildings, including the tobacco warehouses at the heart of the town’s economy.
That summer, the white men were tried by a white jury and found innocent, even though everyone knew they committed the crime. Vernon Tyson lost his church and the family moved away.
Just like his family, Tyson said the United States would rather not remember the ugliness and violence associated with the civil rights movement.
“The Vernon Tysons, Amy Wombles and Samuel Proctors had little to do with the revolution in the South — as incomplete and failed as it was,” he said. “Achievements came in complicated ways.”
“W.E.B. DuBois said it first and said it best in 1912: ‘This country has had its appetite for facts on the Negro problem spoiled by sweets.’,” he said.
University of Louisville Grawemeyer Awards
2007 Grawemeyer Talks
James Comer: Education
Roland Paris: World Order
Leonardo Fogassi, Vittorio Gallese, Giacomo Rizzolatti: Psychology