The Rev. Samuel "Billy" Kyles Recounts the Dreamer's Final Moments
By ADD SEYMOUR JR.
The Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles had driven over to the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis to pick up his friend, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. ’48 for the civil rights icon’s favorite dinner, fried chicken, on the afternoon of April 4, 1968.
“That gave me the wonderful privilege to spend the last hour of his life on Earth with him,” Kyles recalled during his Thursday, April 2, Crown Forum keynote speech at the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel. He was one of 47 preachers, sponsors and scholars inducted into the Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Board of Preachers, Scholars and Collegium Scholars.
“I commend our inductees…and congratulate you on one of the College’s finest honors,” said President Robert M. Franklin Jr. ’75. “Welcome to Morehouse.”
Kyles talked about King’s final moments, just before he was fatally shot while standing on the hotel’s balcony 40 years ago.
Memphis had been a stormy place, literally and figuratively. King had gone to there to support city sanitation workers in their fight for better wages and working conditions. He previously had been to the city to lead a march in support of their plight, but that event unexpectedly turned violent. So in early April 1968, King returned to lead another march that he vowed would be peaceful.
King spoke on the rainy, windy and stormy night of April 3, 1968, at Mason Temple where he gave his famous “Mountaintop Speech” in which he spoke more about death than ever before, Kyles remembered.
Wind-blown shutters inside the Temple banged against the windows as King spoke.
“The night was eerie,” Kyles said. “It was something so different about it….We had no idea that that would be the last speech he would make.”
Later that evening, King was in a playful mood, Kyles said.
“It was as if he had preached himself through the fear of death,” he said. “He got it out of him.”
The next afternoon, Kyles drove over to King’s hotel room. King and other civil rights workers would be eating dinner at Kyles’ house. He remembered sitting with King and Ralph David Abernathy in the room.
“It was light-hearted – almost giddy really,” Kyles said.
They walked out onto the balcony around 5:45 p.m. and joked with the others who were with King on the Memphis trip – people such as Andrew Young and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Kyles took five steps away from King when he heard shots ring through the air.
“Kablam!” Kyles remembered. “Blood was everywhere.”
Kyles screamed to police who asked where the shots came from. That resulted in the famous photo of the group pointing towards where the shots were fired.
King was pronounced dead a few hours later.
“I had no words to express my feelings then and I have none 40 years later to express,” Kyles said.
Kyles wondered why he was present for such a sad and historic event. He then realized that just as in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, there had to be a witness.
“I was a witness,” he said.
Though King, the Dreamer, was dead, Kyles told the audience that the work lives on.
“You can kill the Dreamer, but nope, you cannot absolutely kill the dream. The dream is still alive,” he said.
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