A former model, Tyson acted in Off-Broadway plays and won a role in the TV series East Side, West Side (1963–64). Her film credits include The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968), Sounder (1972, for which she was nominated for an Oscar), and Fried Green Tomatoes (1991). Tyson starred in the TV movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974, an Emmy-winning performance) and played Binta in the miniseries Roots (1977). Her performance in the miniseries Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1994) won an Emmy. She played Gloria Dump in Because of Winn-Dixie (2005) directed by Wayne Wang and based on the bestselling children's book.