Actress Cicely Tyson died Thursday leaving behind a body of pioneering work that – taken as a whole – served as proof to the essence of a message she once delivered in Memphis – finish what you start.
Tyson gained an Oscar nomination for her role as the sharecropper’s wife in “Sounder,” won a Tony Award in 2013 at age 88 and touched TV viewers’ hearts in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” She was 96.
Tyson’s death was announced by her family, via her manager Larry Thompson, who did not immediately provide additional details.
A onetime model, Tyson began her screen career with bit parts but gained fame in the early 1970s when Black women were finally starting to get starring roles. Tyson refused to take parts simply for the paycheck, remaining choosey.
In 2011 as the National Civil Rights Museum observed its 20th anniversary, Tyson was chosen as a recipient of that year’s Freedom Award. She was selected for her contributions to the arts.
Five years later, Tyson, whose memoir “Just As I Am” was published this week, was back in Memphis as the keynote speaker for Agape, the religious-based organization whose mission is to provide children and families with healthy homes. The gala theme that night was “Love thy neighbor,” with organizers saying Tyson –- as a civil rights and human rights activist — was “a living example of what we are trying to do.”
The venue was New Direction Christian Church in Hickory Hill. Tyson was greeted with a standing ovation. A reporter covering the event for The New Tri-State Defender observed that Tyson immediately began disseminating wisdom to a crowd of attentive listeners hanging on to her words of love and hope.
“We need to stop criticizing ourselves and blaming ourselves for what others have done or not done to us,” Tyson advised before adding, “Sometimes we get so busy complaining about what we don’t have that we forget to enjoy the things we do have. This makes it harder to help others.”
Tyson urged that night’s crowd to follow the lead of Agape’s staff and always “finish what they start.”
Tyson’s life and career were testaments to hard work and perseverance. She rose to fame after being nominated for an Academy Award for her role in the 1972 film, “Sounder.” She starred in Alex Haley’s “Roots” and landed the title role in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” which earned her an Emmy Award.
Despite her resume, roles didn’t always come easy. Her refusal to participate in blaxploitation films at times made it hard for her to find work.
“People ask how I cope and have held on for so long,” Tyson said. “I tell them that I believe in divine guidance and I know who I am and whose I am.”
Acknowledging that it isn’t always easy to overcome both professional and personal challenges, Tyson shared a bit of advice.
“If we have the courage to take the first step, it’s the biggest step to get out of our own way. The minute it enters your head, just do it.”
Tyson, 91 years old at the time, Tyson told the audience that she still had a lot of work to do.
“God isn’t done with me yet,” she declared. “And I’m not a quitter.”
(This story includes a report by the Associate Press.)