It is 10:30 in the morning on the Sunday before Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, and a special service in his honor is a-brewing at the First Baptist Church in Oxford, N.C. Early arrivals tread the worn concrete steps into the small church. Older ladies settle into the discomfort of their church pews in style, donning their best hats—one is leopard skin, another looks like a shiny, red cake.
At 11 o'clock the service begins with the processional of the gospel choir. An even mix of black and white attendees sing "I Thank You Lord," which—in a church that served as the starting point for civil rights marches in the 1970s—attests as much to the memory of King as the passionate sermon of visiting speaker Tim Tyson.
Tyson was a 10-year-old resident of Oxford, and the son of the locally prominent preacher Vernon Tyson, when he experienced his town's unraveling from the murder of a 23-year-old black man. In his celebrated memoir Blood Done Sign My Name, Tyson chronicles the community's response, one in which the elder Tyson had a leadership role. Now, nearly four decades later, the younger Tyson, a senior scholar at the Center for Documentary Studies (along with a slew of other distinguishing titles), is back in his hometown as the keynote speaker of the service.
But first, there's the music: Tyson invited his longtime colleague, gospel singer and Raleigh native Mary D. Williams, who Tyson's father calls Mary "Mahalia Jackson" Williams. Midway through the service, Williams, decorated with large gem earrings that match a salmon dress suit, takes the stage with the backing accompaniment of her family (including her father, who used to sing with Sam Cooke). "I want y'all to loosen up a bit," she begins. "We came to have some church." Unleashing her songs of faith, Williams belts inspiring lyrics: "You may be rich/ You may be poor/ But when the Lord get ready, you got to move." And move the crowd does, in body and in spirit.
Tyson's sermon is no less stirring—he holds an appointment at Duke's School of Divinity. After praising the African-American cultural traditions such as gospel, hip hop and jazz, and their influence throughout the world, Tyson speaks of King and the need "to remember [him], not the black Santa Claus, who just wanted everybody to be nice, [but as] the black revolutionary, who gave his life so that the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution ... would no longer be worthless scraps of paper."
It's a remarkable, fiery performance, mixing theology, history and radical politics. Elaborating on the vast suffering of humans on earth, Tyson says, "This has been the human condition for most people most of the time: oppression and exploitation. The world remains a prison house.
"And that is the reason why the world is obsessed with the voice of the black South, born in the bottom of a slave ship," he continues, "because African-American culture began in revolt against what Dr. Martin Luther King called the 'thingification' of human beings. African-American culture was born in opposition to the idea that a person can ever be a thing."
The audience, which has punctuated the sermon with "amen" and "so true" throughout, erupts in clapping and cheering, for neither the first nor the last time in the two-hour-long service.
After Tyson's stemwinder, Williams brings the service to a close with more hymns, including "Blood Done Sign My Name." The emboldened, energized audience stands to shake hands and embrace each other. They linger, absorbing the gathering's perfect union of black tradition and civil rights intellect, before dispersing back into the world.
In the course of writing this story, Megan Stein asked Tim Tyson in an e-mail if he was an ordained minister. This is Tyson's response, published with his permission.
Whew. My Grandmama Irene Hart's granddaddy was a preacher, and her daddy was a preacher, and when she was 16 she ran off with a young preacher named Jack Tyson, and got married in the back seat of a car. Not engaged in the back seat of a car, mind you, which is different, but Jack and Irene actually got married right there in the back seat of a Model-T Ford on Middle Swamp Road near Greenville, North Carolina.
They had gone to Jack's Uncle Alonza's farm to get married, but Uncle Alonza saw they had a Pitt County license, and his farm was in Greene County, and he said he couldn't marry them there because it wouldn't be valid, so they drove just barely across the line into Pitt County and got married in the back seat, because they didn't want to get out and stand in the rain. In later years, Irene liked to say that the car hadn't quite gotten across the county line, that only the front seat had been in Pitt County, but that the back seat was still in Greene County, and therefore she was not legally obligated.
Jack came from a preaching family, too—his Uncle Alonza Tyson, who pronounced them man and wife from the front seat, was a preacher, of course, and his two brothers, Marl and Luther, were both preachers. After Alonza married them, Jack and Irene raised six sons, and all six of them grew up to be preachers, including my father, Vernon Tyson.
In summary, then, though I am a writer and a historian, all five of my uncles, my father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather, my great-great grandfather, all [were] Free Will Baptist or Methodist preachers.
But it didn't stop there: My sister Boo and six of my Tyson cousins graduated from divinity school, and my sister-in-law, Hope Morgan Ward, is now the Methodist bishop of Mississippi. But I have never served a church, studied religion, or attended divinity school, and I don't even have a solid church affiliation, though I almost joined First Baptist [in Oxford] on Sunday [Jan. 13] and I am going to be attending my father's new church in Chapel Hill through June—he accepted an interim appointment at Amity United Methodist a couple of weeks ago.
And so I am standing on the solid rock when I say I am not a preacher.
But it's complicated.