The Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles is often best remembered as an eyewitness to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But he was more than a witness. He was a deeply committed participant in the Civil Rights Movement. Exemplary of this passionate commitment was his role in the strike by Black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn. The strikers’ placards proclaimed, “I Am a Man,” and Kyles, who died Tuesday in a Memphis hospital, was truly a man and an uncompromising freedom fighter. He was 81.
Kyles was instrumental in summoning King to Memphis on behalf of the strikers, who were demanding only a 10 cents-an-hour increase in their wages, dignity, respect and improved safety measures on their jobs.
In King’s autobiography, edited by Clayborne Carson, he recalled his arrival in Memphis. “They really have a great movement here in Memphis,” King told the Rev. Ralph Abernathy. “One thousand three hundred sanitation workers were on strike, and Memphis was not being fair to them.”
Author and journalist Taylor Branch picks up the story regarding Kyles and King as they prepared to leave the Lorraine Motel for dinner at the Kyles’ home. “King walked ahead of Kyles to look over the handrail outside, down on a bustling scene in the parking lot.” They watched below as James Orange, James Bevel and Andy Young playfully shadowboxed.
King called down to them to be careful not to hurt one another. Meanwhile, King called to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Branch noted. “Jesse, I want you to come to dinner with me.”
“Kyles, overhearing on his way down the balcony stairs, told King not to worry because Jackson already had secured his own invitation,” Branch wrote.
At that time Ben Branch arrived, and King greeted him from the balcony and requested he play “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” at the meeting that evening. “Play it pretty.” The talented musician promised that for King, he would.
“Solomon Jones, the volunteer chauffeur, called up to bring coats for the chilly night,” Taylor Branch wrote. “There was no reply. Time on the balcony had turned lethal, which left hanging the last words fixed on a gospel song of refuge. King stood still for once, and his sojourn on Earth went blank.”
Kyles witnessed all of this drama. This moment was clearly the most unforgettable moment in his crusade for justice, but he had witnessed and participated in so much more.
Born on Sept. 26, 1934 in Shelby, Miss., Kyles was the son of a preacher and the former Ludie Cameron. Both his names were connected to religion—Samuel from the Bible because of the care and concern he demonstrated as a child and Billy, named after the evangelist Billy Sunday.
He was six when the family moved to Chicago, and there he attended Northern Seminary. At 17, he was preaching and singing (reportedly with Sam Cooke), both with apparent success because Aretha Franklin said he inspired her version of “Never Grow Old.”
By 1959, Kyles was back in Memphis, where he was the founding pastor of Monumental Baptist Church.
Whether in the pulpit or in the streets, Kyles voiced his opposition to the city’s pervasive segregation. His daughter, Dwania, was one of 13 Black first-graders to integrate Memphis public schools.
“As we mourn the man who will always be ‘my daddy,’” Dwania said, “I share these thoughts with an open heart and spirit as taught to me by both my parents. Their union created me, and through them I learned to live life on my own terms. Like my father, I live my life filled with a thirst for living, growing, changing and finding all the different ways to be me.”
Kyles was a member of the NAACP in 1961 when he was arrested for refusing to sit in the back of the bus. In 1964, the city desegregated the buses, fearing a bus boycott, like the one that had been so successful more than a decade earlier in Montgomery, Ala.
He was a key organizer in the peaceful integration of restaurants and other public places in Memphis, as well as helping to end the runoff elections that often blocked Blacks from being elected.
But it was his witness to King’s assassination that stuck in his memory. “Over the years,” he often told reporters and others, “God has revealed to me why I was there. Crucifixions have to have witnesses.”
Kyles witnessed a number of dramatic milestones in American history.
He is survived by his wife, Aurelia, and many loving family members, including his daughter Epernay and four other children from a previous marriage to the former Gwendolyn Hart—daughters Dwania and Drusheena and sons Dwain and Devin, and four grandchildren.
“I continue to grow in that garden of love, integrity and service and have planted those heirloom seeds in my daughter, Ashli, as we race full throttle in continuing the legacy that was Daddy’s life,” Dwania concluded.
Kyles’ body will lay in state at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis Thursday, May 5. Memorial services are planned later at the Church of God in Christ Mason Temple.