Witness to King's assassination speaks to Anniston Army Depot
January 9, 2009
Most pioneers are not around long enough to walk the trails they've blazed, but that doesn't mean anyone should stop dreaming.
That is what Rev. Samuel "Billy" Kyles told a group of Anniston Army Depot employees Jan. 6 during an event held in the east industrial area by the Equal Employment Opportunity Office in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Kyles, keynote speaker at the sold-out event, is a resource on the Civil Rights Movement and one of the people-the only one still living-who was with King during the last hour of his life. "We are grateful to God for the life he (King) led and the work he did," said Kyles, who witnessed the assassination of King at Memphis' Lorraine Motel in 1968.
Ricky Burk, a technical writer for the Directorate of Mission Plans and Operations, said through reading biographies of King's life, he was familiar with Kyles' contribution to civil liberties before he attended the EEO event.
"I grew up in the civil rights era and it was a great opportunity to see a piece of living history," said Burk.
Dreamers like King see, hear and feel things that others do not, said Kyles, and people may not always embrace those visions. He called attention to brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright who were mocked by naysayers of manned airplanes.
"Don't let anybody rob you of your dream. It's yours and you have the right to make it a reality," said Kyles.
That 'right' is something King-who will be honored Jan. 19 on Martin Luther King Day-has made possible for Americans of all races. King led movements to secure human rights for everyone while strongly opposing the war in Vietnam. A nonviolent activist, he earned the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his work to end racial segregation and discrimination.
During the era that King dreamt of "one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers," he wasn't allowed to take his four children to eat a hot dog inside a diner in downtown Atlanta.
But his dream came true. And, Kyles, who moved his wife and children from Chicago to Memphis in 1959, said he can't help but to reflect on the struggles his ancestors faced. He said that even the slaves, though they were forbidden to learn to read and write, had dreams. "They kept dreaming that one day their children would become doctors, lawyers-even presidents-elect."
"Look what God can do," said Kyles. "There is now a national holiday in honor of an African American, and there have been two black secretaries of state."
A witness to compassion
Like King, Kyles was taken to jail during a move for civil rights; he was arrested in Memphis for sitting in the front of a public bus, near the driver. Under the Jim Crow laws-segregation rules that were legal until the mid 1960s, blacks were only permitted to sit in the back of public transportation. It was also common practice during that time for children to attend separate schools based on race.
It was prejudice like this and the poor working conditions and wages of minorities that King wanted to end the most. And he was determined to make his dreams of equality come true through rallies, marches, meetings with national leaders and through his faith in God.
King's last few days were spent in Memphis, where he planned to speak at a rally in protest of the unequal pay black workers were receiving compared to whites who were performing the same jobs.
It was Kyles who invited King to Memphis for a peaceful march in support of the underpaid and underprivileged black public workers in the city. Kyles recalls the conditions in Memphis on the night of April 3, 1968-"Since there was inclement weather, Martin thought that there wouldn't be many people at the church (Mason Temple). Martin said that he would stay in the hotel to work on another project while we (Kyles, Ralph Abernathy and Jesse Jackson) went to see if there would be a rally. As we walked into the church, the place was nearly full, and everyone was clapping. They thought Martin would be walking in with us. So, Abernathy called Martin and told him to get over here, so Martin came to the rally, and Abernathy introduced Martin for 20 minutes, the last one in Martin's life."
Kyles said King "spoke from his heart" that night, "no particular topic."
"I've been to the Mountaintop" was King's last speech.
The next day, April 4, 1968, King was scheduled to eat dinner with Kyles and others at 6 p.m., so Kyles went to the Lorraine Motel to get King at 5 that afternoon.
Abernathy and King knew that dinner began at 6 and said that Kyles would have to have "preacher talk" with them until closer to dinnertime. "We didn't know it was his last hour," said Kyles.
King was assassinated on the balcony as the men were leaving the hotel room, on their way to dinner.
Though Kyles said there are no words to describe how he felt on the night of April 4, 1968, he knew then it was his job to be a witness to King's devotion to mankind.
"Yes, you can kill the dreamer, but not the dream," said Kyles. "It's still alive."
Depot employees in attendance at the Jan. 6 celebration of King's life said they were grateful to have heard Kyles' message concerning dreams and about his role in civil rights history, particularly his friendship with King.
"I was not born in the time of this dreamer, but I was born during the reality of his dream, and I'm forever in his debt," said Brandi Martin, an information technology specialist. "Listening to the speaker, I could feel the admiration, the love and the hurt in the heart of Reverend Kyles, but I could also feel the understanding and peace in knowing that Dr. King's life was not sacrificed in vain."