By J. Coyden Palmer, Chiacgo Crusader
The man who was standing on the balcony with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968, passed away last week at the age of 81.
Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles passed away April 26 after a long illness. He was a founding member of the National Board of People United to Save Humanity (PUSH); the executive director of Rainbow-PUSH Memphis; and the executive producer of “Rainbow-PUSH” on WLOK Radio.
On the evening King was murdered, the civil rights leader was supposed to have dinner at Kyles’ home. Kyles arrived at the Lorraine Motel to pick up King to give him a home-cooked meal. They never made it to Kyles house. A shot rang out and Kyle would watch King’s final moments on earth.
“The bullet knocked him to the ground, to the floor. I turned around and saw him fall. After that, chaos!”
It was a story Kyles would repeat hundreds of times since 1968, especially when he spoke at colleges or to school children. He had invited King to Memphis on behalf of city sanitation workers that were striking.
Along with Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Kyles and some other assistants to King were on their way to Kyles’ home when a bullet was fired from a powerful hunting rifle by James Earl Ray tore through King’s neck. Kyles was the one standing closest to King at the time. He would describe the murder of King as more of a crucifixion.
“I’ve often asked myself why I was there. Crucifixions have to have witnesses,” Kyles said.
Born in Shelby, Mississippi on September 26, 1934, he became pastor of the Monumental Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee in 1959. He held that position until a few years ago when failing health forced him to step down.
In 1961, Kyles became famous when he enrolled his daughter into an all-white school. It was a calculated decision on his part because some years earlier, Black students in Arkansas were assaulted and had to have the National Guard protect them when they forcibly integrated a school in Little Rock.
“We did not want to make the mistake that Little Rock had made and send high school-aged students,” Kyles said. “So, we decided to send our five-year-olds. Because high schoolers [sic] are tainted already, but a five-year-old is going to act like a five-year-old.”
When he was six, Kyles moved with his family to Chicago. During his time in the Windy City, his neighbors included the Staples Singers and Sam Cooke. He had a great singing voice and told stories of how he and Cooke would sing under the Chicago street lights at night.
This week, Kyles will lie in state in Memphis before his homegoing celebration scheduled for Saturday, May 7 at noon. The service will be held at Monumental Baptist Church—the church he founded nearly 60 years ago.
Kyles is survived by his wife, Aurelia, a daughter and a son.