Witness to assassination recalls days with King
January 24, 2011
- The Rev. Samuel "Billy" Kyles was with Dr. Martin Luther King when he was assassinated.
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. - The Rev. Samuel "Billy" Kyles, who was with Dr. Martin Luther King when an assassin's bullet felled him on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, spoke to an audience of Soldiers and military employees during a commemorative ceremony at Aberdeen Proving Ground Jan. 6.
The U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command sponsored the event at APG's Recreation Center.
Rev. Kyles, who was a key figure in America's civil rights movement and pastor of the Monumental Baptist Church in Memphis since 1959, recalled how King came to that city in late March 1968 to support a strike by that city's sanitation workers. Kyles and other ministers and civic leaders had been organizing nightly rallies and raising money for the strike, and they thought King's presence in Memphis would help them get their message out nationally and to the wider world.
The sanitation workers were striking for a living wage, Kyles said, adding that King came to Memphis because he shared their dream of a nation in which their children would not have their hopes crushed by racial prejudice and injustice.
"Could you imagine Martin Luther King dreaming, even when he couldn't take his children to downtown Atlanta to an amusement park, and he still had the audacity to dream'" Kyles asked his audience. "How do you tell three-, four-, five- or six-year-olds they can't go to the park' They see other children in the park using the facilities. How do you explain to the children that they cannot go into that park in downtown Atlanta'"
While in Memphis, King took part in a major march that ended in violence, something that rarely happened when he visited various cities to promote nonviolent actions in support of civil rights, Kyles recalled. He said Dr. King was upset and disappointed that the march sparked violence, but he was also determined to continue his support for sanitation workers as they struggled for justice.
To support another march, the event organizers planned a rally April 3 at the Mason Temple, headquarters of the Church of God in Christ, and King was determined to speak during that rally at the Mason Temple, but some of the event sponsors were concerned that stormy weather that evening might keep many people from coming to hear what Dr. King had to say. They need not have worried because the Mason Temple was packed with people. There Dr. King delivered his famous "Mountaintop" speech.
Kyles recalled how King's words struck many listening that evening as prophetic, not only because King spoke of a future without oppression and racial discord tearing the fabric of American life, but also because they realized he was foretelling his own death.
"In that speech, I heard him talk about death more than he had talked about it in a while," Kyles said. "He talked about the woman who stabbed him when he was in New York, and the blade was just inches away from his heart. He looked at that audience and said, 'I may not get there with you, but you will get to the Promised Land.' He had no doubt that his time was short. 'I may not get there' really meant 'I won't get there.' Then he said, 'But in spite of that, God has allowed me to go up onto the mountain, and I have looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land, so I'm not worried tonight. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.' By that time we were all in tears. We knew what he was saying."
Dr. King's mood had grown lighter when Kyles saw him again the following day.
"By the next day, he was all right," Kyles recalled. "It was as if he had preached himself through the fear of death. He got it out of him. So many death threats came to him. Finally he said to us, 'Don't tell me about any more. I don't want to hear it. Leave it go.'"
Few could have imagined, however, that death would come on that day, April 4, at 6:01 p.m.
Kyles had invited King to his home for dinner that day, which was supposed to occur at 6 p.m., but King wasn't quite ready to leave the motel. As a result, Kyles and fellow civil-rights champion Dr. Ralph Abernathy spent the final hour of King's life in light-hearted conversation with him in his motel room.
"It was a wonderful opportunity to spend the last hour of his life on Earth with him - three preachers in a room," Kyles said. "Of the three, I am the only one left. The press has said, 'What did three preachers do in a room for an hour' I said, 'preacher talk.' They said, 'what is preacher talk'' And I said, 'whatever preachers talk about is preacher talk.' It was just three guys hanging out."
By that time, a crowd of people had gathered in the courtyard of the motel, and Dr. King stood on the balcony greeting them and waving to them.
"Abernathy was still in the room, but Martin and I had gotten ready, and we stepped out onto the balcony," Kyles said. "There were people in the courtyard, and he was waving at them. He saw Jesse Jackson, and he said, 'Jesse, you're not dressed for dinner,' and Jesse said, 'I don't need a suit and tie. I've got an appetite, and that's all I need.' It was light-hearted stuff. Jesse said, 'I want you to meet my band leader. He's from Chicago. Martin said, 'Bring him over here.' So they started walking toward the balcony. Martin was leaning over the balcony railing meeting Ben Branch. I said, 'guys, we have got to go!' and I turned and walked away. I got about four or five steps, and the shot rang out."
When Kyles turned back to look at the balcony, King was lying on his back, bleeding profusely from a gaping wound in his neck. He also had an exit wound in his chest, Kyles said. Kyles frantically tried to summon help by calling the motel operator, but she had been in the motel courtyard among the crowd, so he couldn't get connected immediately. The woman later died of a heart attack brought on by the shock of what she witnessed, Kyles added.
Immediately following King's assassination, there was little evidence that pointed to the identity of anyone responsible. But on April 19, 1967, fingerprints on the rifle found by law-enforcement authorities, as well as other items, were matched with those of James Earl Ray, who at the time was a fugitive from Missouri State Penitentiary.
A search for Ray began at that point, but it took weeks to locate him, at which point he was getting ready to board a plane at Heathrow Airport in London. He was arrested and extradited to the United States to stand trial. One of his attorneys eventually persuaded him to plead guilty to first-degree murder in March 1969, which was a deal that spared him the death penalty. He was sentenced to 99 years in prison, where he died April 23, 1998.
Over the years since Ray was arrested, whether or not he actually pulled the trigger has remained controversial and the basis for various conspiracy theories.
During his remarks at the APG Recreation Center, Kyles fervently urged his audience to keep their dreams alive, particularly the young people who will be tomorrow's lawyers, judges, doctors and professionals.
Young people will someday wield influence and ensure that America is a country that lives up to its founding ideals of equality of opportunity for everyone, Kyles said. Quoting the African-American writer and poet Langston Hughes, he said, "Hold fast to your dreams, for without them life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly."
Kyles said he has often asked himself why he was present when Dr. King was assassinated. He has since decided it was so he could be a witness to a dark moment in America's history.
"Over the years, God revealed to me why I was there," Kyles said. "Crucifixions have to have witnesses. So I was there to be a witness - to tell you what happened on that April 4, 1968. I must admit, we can kill the dreamer, but I hurriedly tell you that you cannot kill the dream. The dream is still alive."