Cyril D. Tyson, who led antipoverty programs from inside and outside government in New York City and Newark in the 1960s in a tense racial atmosphere punctuated by violence, died on Thursday at his home in North Salem, N.Y. He was 89.
His wife of 64 years, Sunchita, said he died after a series of strokes.
“Athlete, educator, civil rights activist, public servant, dad,” his son Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist, television host and director of the Hayden Planetarium in Manhattan, said on Twitter.
In 1963, Cyril Tyson was a former college track star who had worked on the staffs of the New York City Commission on Intergroup Relations and its successor, the Commission on Human Rights, when he joined Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited, a new, government-financed antipoverty organization that became widely known as Haryou.
He played a major role in designing the group’s programs, which were aimed at improving the area’s public schools and its residents’ job skills and opportunities. It included after-school remedial study centers and on-the-job training projects.
Urban affairs specialists at the time were urging such programs to remedy shortcomings that, they argued, fueled racial unrest — of the kind that erupted within months. In July 1964, the fatal shooting of a black teenager by a white police lieutenant led to rioting and looting in Harlem that left one person dead, many injured and extensive property damage.
Mr. Tyson said at an education conference that year that many black students were simply not learning. “Teachers are just not teaching,” he said. “They have low expectations and say the children can’t learn because they are black.”
He also defended welfare recipients, saying they had been unjustly stigmatized.
“The implication was there, in public attitudes and administrative regulations, that people in need were somehow innately inferior to other human beings,” he wrote in The Boston Globe. “In fact, the majority of those on welfare who are not children, aged or disabled are people who want the opportunity to be productive.”
While he worked on shaping Haryou’s programs, a fight for control of the group flared between its most prominent founder, Kenneth B. Clark, the psychologist and educator whose studies had influenced the Supreme Court a decade earlier, when it ruled against racial segregation in public schools, and Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the congressman from Harlem.
Mr. Clark, with whom Mr. Tyson had worked closely, resigned from the group, and Mr. Tyson, then the acting executive director, followed suit in late 1964, when Mr. Powell was about to prevail in his choice for a permanent executive director. Mr. Tyson became executive director of the nonprofit United Community Corporation in Newark, newly created to run that troubled city’s antipoverty program.
The Newark organization, too, was soon involved in a battle with politicians. A City Council committee demanded that United Community be replaced by a commission controlled by City Hall. The committee contended that the group lacked controls to keep it from becoming a “grab bag and a pork barrel,” and that it paid excessive salaries. United Community said the “real issue” was a desire for political control over the programs.
The group was still running the programs when Mr. Tyson resigned in 1966 to became deputy administrator for minority economic development at the New York City Human Resources Administration under Mayor John V. Lindsay. (A year later, five days of rioting by blacks in Newark took 26 lives and inflicted millions of dollars in property damage.)
In New York, Mr. Tyson was later named commissioner of the city’s Manpower and Career Development Agency, where he centralized efforts to help the poor find work. The “piecemeal approach of the past,” he said, with programs carried out by numerous public and private agencies, was rife with inefficiencies.
But he found critics in New York, as well. A City Council committee said his agency’s job-training courses had failed to meet the needs of business. Mr. Tyson argued otherwise. He offered statistics from August 1970 showing that the agency had placed nearly 19,000 people in jobs and trained 15,000 others during the previous year.
He left the manpower agency that month for a fellowship at the Institute of Politics at Harvard. Later in the 1970s and in the ’80s, he was a public and community affairs official at City College of New York and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, where he also served as a transportation planning official. He wrote several books based on his years in antipoverty work.
Cyril deGrasse Tyson was born on Oct. 19, 1927, in Manhattan to Albert Tyson, a security guard, and Altima Tyson, who was active in community affairs.
He competed in military track and field events while in the Army. Later, as a member of the track team at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, he was the metropolitan intercollegiate 600-yard champion in 1950 and 1951. He earned a master’s degree in social work at Columbia University.
Mr. Tyson married Sunchita Feliciano in 1952. In addition to his wife and son Neil, he is survived by another son, Stephen Joseph Tyson, a painter; a daughter, Lynn Antipas Tyson, a business executive; a sister, Joan Fortuné; and six grandchildren.