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A story of violence and race in small-town N.C.

bookMy decision to read this “docudrama” (part memoir, part history and part detective story) was prompted by my genuine wish to gain a better understanding of the history of racial conflicts and violent conformations that took place in North Carolina between the 1950s and the present.

Although I remember events such as the Lumbee vs. Klan dust-up in 1958, the Greensboro Massacre in 1979 and the Wilmington race riots (in both 1898 and 1968), I did not see them as related. Timothy Tyson changed that. By the time the reader finishes Blood Done Sign My Name, he/she will be painfully aware of North Carolina’s deeply rooted and abiding racial history. In essence, Tyson feels that the “status quo” embodies the same forms of discrimination, but they are now disguised as “moderate” and “conservative” policies that advocate “gradual progress.” In fact, it is so gradual it is usually non-existent.

Timothy Tyson is a gifted storyteller and a poet – two talents that are employed with consummate skill to produce a narrative that sparkles with clarity and honesty. The story concerns a racist murder in his hometown, Oxford, N.C., in 1970. Tim was a child at the time, and much of the narrative is seen through his eyes. The son of a highly regarded Methodist minister, Rev. Vernon Tyson, Tim is a witness to his father’s struggle to retain his ministry in an all-white church where he attempts to reconcile Christ’s teachings with the church’s bedrock racism. Using old letters, newspapers and his parents’ diaries, the author vividly chronicles his father’s struggle during the weeks following the brutal murder of Henry Marrow, a 23-year-old Vietnam veteran who was shot and beaten to death for allegedly making an inappropriate comment to two white women outside a local grocery store. The murder was carried out by Robert Teel, a local barber and a KKK member. He was aided and abetted by two of his sons. Teel had a long-standing reputation for violence and had previously been involved in a number of incidents in which he had attacked and beaten both law officials and Oxford citizens.

At times, Blood Done Sign My Name reads like a variation on the murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955. Both Emmett and Henry Marrow were beaten to death by racists who were subsequently found not guilty by an “all white jury.” In both crimes, the outrage following the verdict acted as a catalyst that ignited outrage. Till’s murder provoked national concern, and in the years following Emmett’s death, significant and painful changes finally came to Mississippi. When Marrow’s killers were released, Oxford’s African-American community launched a series of destructive actions designed to strike at the heart of the town’s business district. The burning of warehouses and local businesses was orchestrated by a group of Vietnam veterans who understood the mechanics of arson.

When the mayor increased law enforcement and established a curfew, the town’s black activists organized a boycott and established a “taxi service” that took the Oxford’s black community to nearby towns to buy groceries and shop. The boycott worked, with Oxford’s business owners reporting a 40 to 60 percent loss.

Tyson gives a poignant description of the mule-drawn funeral train that traveled from Oxford to Raleigh where the marchers hoped to get an audience with the governor. The entire event was designed to force the governor to acknowledge the injustice that has been proclaimed daily in Raleigh’s News and Observer. Gov. Scott refused to meet with the marchers — a response that defined his position.

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Tyson identifies everyone by name and gives colorful and graphic descriptions of Oxford’s cast of characters, including the major, the editor of the Oxford Public Ledger (the paper’s files mysteriously vanished from both the newspaper office and the library when Tyson began his research on this book), the police officers, the alleged killer, Robert Teel and his lawyer, Billy Watkins, and a host of state officials, including Gov. Robert Scott and Jesse Helms. His most notable “real life” characters are Eddie McCoy (who perfected the “Miller High Life fire bomb”) and Ben Chavis, the mastermind behind the Oxford boycott. Both became significant leaders in the “freedom movement” throughout the state. Ben is famous for his statement, “We decided we are not going to spend our money with businesses that were supporting injustice.” (This strategy is vividly alive today. In fact, I just signed a petition to stop using a product that is harmful to the environment.)

Tyson’s portrayal of family members and close friends is especially noteworthy. Golden “Goldie” Fricks, a former nightclub owner and African-American, has acquired a reputation in the civil rights movement as a “mover and shaker.” He comes to Oxford to speak at Henry Marrow’s funeral and to lead the subsequent march to Raleigh. Like Chavis and McCoy, Fricks appears throughout Blood Done Sign My Name, going where he is needed. Then, there is the author’s moving portrait of the poet, Thad Stem Jr., who became Tyson’s mentor and inspired him to develop a writing style that combined lyricism and storytelling. In view of this book’s merits, it appears that Stem’s encouragement succeeded. However, the most abiding image in this book is that of his father, Rev. Vernon Tyson, who struggled so courageously to overcome the dormant racism in his congregation. He failed, and in time he was forced to leave Oxford. Ironically, his next church is in Wilmington, where he finds himself once more in a town that is on the verge of racial violence.

Although Tyson’s admiration for his father is heartfelt, it is also true that in the final analysis, the author feels that his father and all of the kind and well-meaning men like him are “part of the problem.” Despite his defense of African-Americans, the Reverend Tyson embodies that attitude toward racial equality that Martin Luther King identified as “those people of good will.” They are “moderate” or “conservative,” and they are unintentional obstacles to racial equality.

In conclusion, let me note that there is a movie version of Blood Done Sign My Name. Don’t waste your time or your money. Although it manages to follow the basic plot, it is as empty and devoid of “lyric storytelling” as a 1950s sitcom. Uninspired and totally miscast, it has only one character who seems authentic, and that is the murderer, Robert Teel, who is portrayed by Jackson County’s very own Nick Searcy. Nick is excellent, but he can’t save this turkey.

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